Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)
Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today I got a special guest with me, Mr. Desmond Williams. He is the author of The Burning House: Educating Black Boys in Modern America. So Desmond, thank you so much for joining us today.
Desmond Williams: (00:22)
Thank you for having me, Sheldon. Thank you for having me.
The pleasure is always mine. I want to get into educating our black boys. Before we get into that, I would love for you to share with our audience, our fellow Advocates out there a little bit about who you are and what you currently do.
Sure. I am working as an educational consultant in Offer Now, but I am a former teacher and principal. I taught for nine years, and I was an administrator, assistant principal for another seven. I started my career in the District of Columbia public schools. I'm a former special education teacher, did my master's work in special education, and worked in a combination of a lot of schools. I've worked in public schools, I've worked in public charter schools, I've worked in nonpublic day schools supporting children with special needs, and I've also worked in private and independent schools. So I've been around the block. But as a former special education teacher, inner-city, my classrooms were mostly de facto all-boys classrooms. So having done that for a number of years and then the last six years spent at an all-boys school, four years as a teacher and another two years as a principal, I just became consumed with what are the best practices for black males and whether that be in all-boys settings or whether that be in a coed setting. So that is what my work mostly centers around. But at best, at its core, I consider myself to be a student. So I'm always seeking to learn and seeking to figure out how I can better my practice, whether that was in the classroom or even as an administrator.
Okay. And thank you for sharing. And you also are a part of an organization. Did you want to share a little bit about your organization?
Sure. I am the founder and CEO of Nylinka School Solutions. It was an organization that I founded approximately two years ago, and that works -- centers around coming up with equity solutions for schools, some of that work centers around rethinking special education referrals, helping schools with leadership and teacher development and helping schools help and support black boys and boys of color. Yeah. So we're -- it'll be two years in July.
Well, congratulations as you're coming up on that two year anniversary, and thank you for the work that you're doing. So it sounds like you have a lot of experience working with black males, based off of [what] you're sharing with us, your background. So I want to know off the bat just so all of the kids out there can kind of have, I guess some guidelines -- not guidelines, but have some things that we need to consider. So what are some things that we need to know when educating black males?
The first thing I say -- I think guidance is actually a good word.
The first thing I say, having done this for a number of years and having the success that crosses the spectrum, whatever it was, lots of success, and then there were minimal amounts of success. But the first takeaway that I've picked up over these last 19 years is that the education of all children is a political act. And that is certainly the case when you're talking about educating disenfranchised groups, vulnerable groups, black children, black boys, or whatever the case may be. It is a political act. And what happens as a result of that education has political ramifications. And if we don't [inaudible] people who care about [inaudible] stakeholders who care about that and we don't embrace that, then our children will not have the success that we want them to have. So that's the first piece of guidance.
And I know that that sounds pretty lofty, but the things I talk about in my book, Sheldon, is this notion of, as educators, we tend to -- what schools need to do differently around pedagogy, around extending the school day, around curriculum materials and things like that. All of those conversations have their place. What I see is that our boys are failing because of a lack of community, political and social-political control of schools. And I think when you have those things in place, then you get success for your children because you have control over the things that we tend to talk about, such as having more black male educators, having rites of passage programs, having a curriculum that is reflect[ing] the culture in the [inaudible] of the children in a building, right? This notion of culturally relevant pedagogy. So from my perspective, those are the takeaways. And if we are working towards supporting black children and supporting black boys, then that has to be where the conversation starts.
Okay. So what I'm hearing is you started with, it's a political act, and that's educating any child that there's a political act. And I definitely would agree with that. And I think overall, especially when it comes to leadership, it's where do you really place your values? So I might say that all students are important to me, or this particular group is important to me. But if I'm not actively allocating funds, resources, staffing, you mentioned, you know, hiring more males, you know, black male educators and those kinds of things. If I'm not actively pursuing that, then that's that politics thing, and sometimes that can happen with pressure from the community or businesses that support the schools, and so we're not necessarily willing to speak up or actively pursue ways that we can create these equitable situations as we're talking about black males. So I love how you're saying that, and I totally wholeheartedly agree with that. There is so much politics. I was just speaking to a principal not too long ago, and he was telling me some of the pressures of the politics as a school leader, and you have to make these decisions, and he's a black male principal, and it's like you have to make these decisions that sometimes it's going to rub people the wrong way. Then some people are excited about making those tough decisions.
Yes sir. I can -- man, I talk about my last experience in a school was a super positive experience, Sheldon. But one of the things I don't talk about in the book is the target that was on my forehead because I was completely against having our students, which this is an all-boys school, it's a private episcopal school. So there was a sense of what I called an identity crisis because it was an Episcopal school. But that to me did not trump the fact that this school was 100% African American male, right? So a very homogeneous population. And I was just completely against having the students sick for standardized testing. And that pressure was not coming from parents. It certainly wasn't coming from teachers. It was coming from the board because our board of directors was a collection of businessmen, businesswomen, some educators, but they all had affiliations with private independent schools, whether they led at them or some land at them and went to them.
So the notion of a test thing being biased, culturally inappropriate and not being a good marker of where our school, how our student was doing was just completely foreign to them to the degree that they thought Mr. Williams is selling snake oil to the degree that our -- the boys are not doing well and he's trying to hide it by having them not take this test. So that principal you were talking to and in terms of political pressure, I mean it can just be completely consuming if you will, but I stayed, and I did it, and we had reading scores, schoolwide in [the] 80th percentile, but it was a different time kind of tests. We -- it was a very straightforward test as opposed to some of the instruments that are out there that are not written by diverse communities and are not really written for diverse communities.
So can we dig a little deeper into that? Because I want to know what's like what did you do because you said [inaudible] got a lot of pushback from the board of directors, and I think we can all agree that standardized testing is often culturally biased. And so how were you able to proceed, I guess with doing the other tests, alternative test? Was that as a kind of like a trial period, or I mean what was kind of your process to get the board to get on board, I guess with what you were pursuing?
Yeah, that's a really great question, Sheldon, and I'm so glad you asked. And part of it to give a little more context, the school was very young, so we were building from scratch, and we had many teachers had many teacher-made tests that were helping us figure out how our students were doing on our content that we taught, and we were using Fountas and Pinell and some map testing that was giving us really great data on how our students were doing. And it's very straightforward. The conversation with the board really needed to start happening for me [on] a one on one level.
So I could get those board members to see this is how our kids are doing, and it's going to look drastically different if they sit for these tests because these tests look, feel and sound differently than how our students learn and come to this place every day.
It was really a reeducation for many of the board members, they had some legitimate concerns specifically if -- say for instance, if Jason wants to go to this particular school, wants to see this kid, take the Star Wars test, and if you, Mr. Williams are saying that the Star Wars test is culturally biased, that he may not get into that school. And my response to that is those schools need to look at the entire child. And if they're not looking at the entire child, then they are doing a disservice. So is that the best place for him to go in the first place? The other part of that conversation was, "You all are the board, and you all know these admission directors at these other schools. So work your magic. I'm in the school working this magic. You all go work that magic." And ultimately, it ended up working out.
We had a super admission/outplacement director who did a really great job of, I'm using the word politicking, but having conversations with these other schools around what we were doing and some of those schools were not open to this idea of this test as culturally inappropriate. But the argument was to look at everything else that this child has done. Like we had some super enriching experiences from leadership camps to project-based learning to cardboard challenges, all of these great things that our students had done that others who were applying to these other schools weren't necessarily getting, so again, how do you look at the whole child? But in terms of dealing with the board, there were some one-on-one conversations, and it was a lot of reeducation looking at what scholars and what other school leaders were saying about schools because ultimately the conversation boils down to if we have PARP testing, right, which is taken [I] still believe about 21 States use the PARP testing, right?
Teachers are working every day. Kids are working every day, but at a typical school reading and math scores on a Parker in the fifties or the 60th percentile, or do we really believe black children are not capable of learning to the degree that there're only 50% of them are reading on grade level or doing math on grade level. Maybe there's something wrong with the test. If there's not something wrong with the tests, then ultimately, board member, you believe there's something wrong with these children. That was the ultimate selling point to get to ask board members to look in the mirror and reflect. Why are they sitting on a board doing that work? Because if you believe there's something wrong with the children, then maybe this is not the best place for you. And ultimately, because we had a great group of board members, the belief was, "Okay, he might be right. It's something wrong with the test, but we -- he's absolutely right. There's nothing wrong with these children." So…
Strong words and, but you bring a powerful message to the board, and I liked the lobbying. That was something I used to have to do when I was a school principal back in the day. When you want to get some of those initiatives passed and especially when you knew that there was going to be a lot of pushback, being able to sit one on one with board members and having those conversations and then getting your board chair on board first was very helpful for me. So I'm glad that you took that process and you stood firm, and you didn't cave. You had your beliefs and convictions, and you shared that information, and like you said, you had results, positive results to share with. So tell me about that. So you didn't do the standardized testing, and you did the alternative route. Tell us more about what happened next.
You know what? So it's interesting that was the first year going into the second year, there really wasn't much of a conversation around standardized testing say for standardized testing, right? This is what the average board member would say. Standardized testing is not going to be an issue if these graduating students get into the schools that their parents want them to get into. That was really the conversation. We went from when I was a classroom teacher at this school, getting to a place where we were collecting schoolwide data. When I took over as an administrator, it was getting teachers putting in place the processes and the systems to collect schoolwide data three times a year. Right? The beginning of my second year teachers had that process down. It was a matter of are we doing this with fidelity, and what do we need to do around interim assessments?
But the board was quiet from that standpoint. It was the board saying, "Where do these kids want to go when they leave here, and what do we need to do that?" So that the notion of -- the issue of end of the year testing was null and void. Now when I left, someone with a different philosophy came in, right? And said, "Mr. Williams is a quack," and kept the interim assessments I was doing. They kept the map in a Fountas and Pinell testing that we were doing. They kept the teacher made tests that we were doing. We were using [inaudible] at the math program we were using, but they adopted an end of the year testing mechanism, and our students were scoring -- our best of students were scoring in the 40th and 50th percentile. Our good students, right, were scoring in the 25th and 30th percentile. So…
And now you said this was K-8 or K-12?
You know what, we were a K-5 school. We were in elementary school.
Got it. Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate you enlightening our fellow Advocates. I love to hear advocacy stories because I think that's important. I know our listeners find some similar challenges, and hopefully, you've been able to provide some tips on how to get some initiative. Like you have something burning in your heart, and you know what's wrong. How do you deliver that message in a way that resonates to where change can happen? And I think this story is a great example of that. So I definitely appreciate you on that.
So I am happy to share because I think in my experience parents will say, "I knew it," right? If a parent listens to this podcast Sheldon they'll say, "I knew it. I know my baby is smarter than that test." Well, we don't necessarily, and I can honestly say Sheldon, I was stumbling in those presentations to board meetings for the board. I was stumbling. It was really difficult to articulate the cultural bias in tests. One of the data points that I had and researching for a few board presentations that actually did not end up in my book was this notion that the SAT has allowed parents to self-identify income for the last 30 years and the highest performing, the highest-earning black children score much lower on the SAT than do lower-middle-class white children. So even with the quote-unquote privilege of having more financial opportunities and more access to test prepping and things like that, black children do not score as well as quote-unquote lower-income white children. And then there's even an achievement gap between Asian Americans and white Americans. Asian Americans [boys and] girls outpace white American boys and girls. So it's a really interesting phenomenon. But getting the board to embrace this notion that most standardized tests are a reflection of exposure to a particular culture was completely revolutionary to the point where when I left, and the new principal took over, she said to the board, "That is not true. He's a quack."
So I'm happy to share those stories because if more people believe it, then it won't be Mr. Williams, and people who listen to what he's saying are in this conspiracy theory lane. Right?
Okay. So let's shift gears because I want to leave our audience, our Advocates out there, I want to leave them with some strategies. You illustrated awesome pictures as far as advocacy works, let's get a little bit more specific with some strategies that we can use to make learning more engaging for our black males. So I could imagine that, okay. With the route that you took for your students at your school, we still had to motivate and engage our kids. At a black boys' school. Then I'd love to hear what kind of strategies that you have available or some tips or guidelines, if you will, that could help us out.
Absolutely. We started with the notion of instructional inequity, and culturally African Americans are a people of rhythm and spirit and movement and motion and connectivity. And those things are drowned out if your teachers spend too much time talking and if kids are spending too much time sitting. So we spent [inaudible] amount of time at the beginning of the year working with our new teachers, which we didn't really have much of because the school was really small and there just wasn't a lot of turnover when I was working in leadership, but an inordinate amount of time training new teachers on how to be quiet and how to turn the lessons and the activities that you were doing into activities where students are up and about and talking. And there was a protocol that I developed. It's actually in the book, but essentially it asks the teacher to either change the verb, right?
So you write a lesson plan as a teacher, right? It's Sunday night. 60 minutes just went off. You have to write lesson plans for the week, right? You write your lesson plans, and you then edit the plans. You either cross out the verb, which is what the children will do, or you cross out the product, and the product has to be something that's either physical, verbal, or students working in groups to produce a product. That is how we deal with this notion of instructional integrity. There's a data point in my book. The gentleman's name is David Rap. He was a professor in research at Northwestern University in Evanston, but one of the things he said in his research was that approximately 80% of elementary education is [inaudible] sheet and/or textbook driven. That is a killer for boys. That's not even a racial issue. That's just a gender issue.
That's a killer for boys. So how do you, as a teacher, combat that instructional integrity because instruction in this country, in the Western world, is based on this high-end Greek philosophy around "I am the curator of knowledge as a teacher. I talk, you listen, you take notes, you take it in," and it's completely ineffective in most instances. It's not built on a notion of equity, and it's not -- it certainly isn't built on any effective strategies in terms of how students learn best. But once teachers are not well planned, they default to, "I talk, you listen, you do this after I talk and you listen." So busting that out in terms of strategy is number one to getting boys of color learning. And what the research tells us, Dr. Sheldon, is that those strategies do not harm girls. So if we're talking about black boys and girls in a classroom or black and brown children in the classroom with boys and girls, those strategies where kids are up, and they're physically engaging in activities, there is no evidence to suggest that they are harmful or not impactful for girls. So it's a win-win situation all the way around and the data that we do have and -- speaking of research -- there isn't enough that it's impactful as you spiral up to middle and high school even though those students are more mature and have more of a capacity to handle the quote-unquote sit-and-get or a lecture-style type of lessons and activities.
Okay. So I have one more set of questions for you, and we'll wrap things up today. So you have experience with special education, and as a school leader you have experienced, I would imagine with school discipline. I would love to hear some of your thoughts on how we could address some of the disproportionalities when it comes to our special education programs and our school discipline.
I think one of the things that I had to learn as an administrator is I don't work for teachers. I work for students. I became a principal at a very young age, and I think to some degree, I let my teachers bully me in terms of the expectations that they created around what should happen when students come to the office. So one of the first things that need to happen, and this starts with principals, the principal sets the expectations around what discipline should look like. Define discipline, Mrs. Principal, as teaching students what to do in situations. That's discipline. Teaching is part of what happens. So when you want to deal with disproportionality, you have to talk about what we mean by when we discipline, and we teach when we discipline. So those two things I think are very important. The other thing I think is absolutely important is the punishment has to fit the crime.
And punishment is taken on a case by case basis. I have suspended kids for fighting, right? I believe in suspension -- in this day and time, Sheldon, I think you can appreciate, there's a lot of pushback when students are suspended, but I tell parents at the beginning of the year, especially new parents, I used to tell new children, I will suspend you because you're setting expectations around what can happen if you do not do the right thing. But I also knew there were certain kids suspension would really, really, really, really work if that child committed something egregious. I also knew that there were certain kids, if I called their grandmother as opposed to their mother, that kid would literally melt in my office. So how we react as adults to what children do wrong or to the infractions that they commit is super important and equal is not fair.
What I do for you might be completely different. How I respond to you as a teacher might be completely different than how I respond to another child who does the exact same thing. But ultimately, we are teaching our students. We also front-load the relationships so that everyone in the building knows we love our children, we love on our kids, we love their parents, even when their parents are crooked in terms of how they approach teachers and staff, right? Because some parents don't always come being their best, even though they want to present their best. We love everyone in a building, and everything that happens is done out of love. Those things are super important, and I think they go a long way in decreasing this quote-unquote disproportionality where you have black and brown children being suspended at higher rates and being suspended for longer periods of time and the data is telling us regardless of the infraction or regardless of the type of discipline, whether it is spending time in school suspension or children being expelled from school.
Black boys fall at the bottom of that or the far end of that spectrum in terms of the inequalities. The other thing I would say really quickly is yes we're teaching, yes we are loving, but we want to put students on the forefront of holding restorative circles so that our community is made whole again, when there is some kind of infraction and my experience has been when we front-load those things between late August and November, the teaching and the learning is so much easier, and you have a community who'll really care about each other, and they are invested in helping -- students are invested in helping each other make the right decision.
Love it. You and I have different philosophies when it comes to suspensions, but I definitely appreciate your perspective on that.
And let me give you a number really quickly, Sheldon, in [the] two years as a principal we use -- this is myself and assistant principal -- seven days of suspension in two years. Okay. So if I – we're probably closer to being on the same page than you think, but seven days in two years. Yeah.
Well, thank you for adding that in because I afraid -- I was like, "Man, this guy probably out there just, 'You get suspended!'" But I appreciate you coming from the perspective of that option there.
But no, but from their perspective, some working-class mothers, that was their perception.
"He gonna suspend you, and if he suspends you and you got to stay home, you go," right? And that's kind of what you want until you build that trust where you can say to a parent, "We're going to handle this, and I might give you a call, but as a school, we believe we can handle this situation, and we're going to bring you into the loop because we think it's fair that you should know it, but not that we think you need to do anything else about it because we handled it as a school."
There you go.
If that makes sense.
Yeah, I'm with you. And what about your thoughts on special education?
In terms of special education I have, going back to my political moniker, I -- let me preface the conversation by saying I will be going back to school in the fall to pursue my Ph.D. in educational psychology.
And I am very interested in writing and creating psychometrics that allows disenfranchised communities to redefine what is normal. And I believe black and brown boys suffer under the OHI/ADHD label. And I also believe we suffer under the emotional disturbance label. And my experience -- and this is why the research is important. My experience has been -- many of the children that I have worked with that I've come across who are labeled as emotionally disturbed, are mislabeled, and they are truly suffering from what I would just simply call white supremacy and that they are dealing with poverty. Their families are food insecure, mother may be working multiple jobs, there are all of these other stressors and factors that inhibit the child from learning, but it's not an emotional problem. It's they have not been given as children the opportunities to be their best because of these other stressors.
We would never label the child -- I'm making this up -- VOWS, victim of white supremacy. We would never call that a disability classification, but why do we say that something is wrong with this child emotionally? The other thing that I want to look at and focus on with special education, specifically the ADHD classification, is the criteria has to change because it's just too loosely defined, and at this, you could label my four-year-old daughter is ADHD because she talks incessantly. She climbs incessantly, and she has been doing it for a specific amount of time, and it's just not clear. It's not fair. It's not equitable, and it does not take into account cultural practices amongst groups of people. So as African Americans, and I think you may be able to identify with this, but when I was a kid, my mother or my aunts or even my dad would say, "Why you in the house? Boy, go outside."
Like there is a positive consequence associated with being up and being active, and we grow up in our homes under those cultural norms. And then we are asked to come to school now at age three and four 40 years ago. We're coming to school at ages three and four, and we're being asked to sit, and we're asked to be still. With the advent of Common Core, kindergarten now looks like the middle or the beginning of second grade. The stressors, the academic stressors, and the academic pressures that we put on children now are much more stringent than they were 15-20 years ago because we're literally in an academic arms race. And you have a disproportionate amount of African American boys being labeled ADHD because early elementary educators, by and large, are women and our curriculum and our behavioral expectations for schools are largely normed against white middle-class girls.
So if you are a white middle-class girl and you grow up to be a teacher, and this black boy is having issues sitting still when he's five, that's when a stigma starts and by the time you're seven here's that label. So I think those two labels in general, we have to take another look at. And even I would say in terms of the intellectually the ID label, that's something we have to revisit as well because those labels are not education labels. They're political, economic labels as well. To quote Amos Wilson, "They carry and follow all children even after they're done with 12th grade," and it literally gives a recommendation of is this person eligible to participate in the middle-class economy?
Yes, I could definitely identify…
Sorry if that was too long of an answer.
No, no, no, that's fine. And I can definitely identify with being told to go outside. That was definitely part of my upbringing, and I know, you know -- this happened. That happens a lot in our communities, so Desmond, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?
My advice is to keep learning and listen, too -- this is a quote from my doctor, "You can listen to everyone, but trust yourself."
I love it. If we got some folks that want to reach out to you, what's the best way to connect online, and how can we get ahold of The Burning House: Educating Black Boys in Modern America?
Sure. You can reach me on all social media platforms @Nylinka. That is N-Y-L-I-N-K-A. My website is nylinka.org, that's N-Y-L-I-N-K-A. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn at Desmond Williams. If you wanted to purchase a copy of The Burning House, you can purchase the book on Amazon, but you can also purchase the book on my website, www.nylinka.org. I also host, It's Coming to a Close on June 7th, but I host the Twitter chat on educating boys of color. That hashtag is hashtag S-O-B-T-C [#SOBTC] as in Send Our Boys to College. It is every other first and third Wednesday of the month, so you can catch us there as well. 7:30 PM Eastern standard time SOBTC.
And I'll leave the links in the show notes. So once again, it has been a pleasure. Thank you, Desmond, so much for joining us today.
Thank you very much, Doc. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I would be remiss if I didn't say thank you for the work that you do and helping all of the students and families that you've helped and giving a voice to teachers and educators who otherwise might be voiceless. So thank you.
You know, we're all trying to do our part, right?
I appreciate it.
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