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Discovering Her Purpose—and Defying Old Stigmas—in Research

 The opportunity and community Teanna Williams found in her AP classes turned a shy, anxious student into a confident leader and role model whose work on HIV/AIDS education transformed her school

All eyes were on Teanna Williams—some a few feet away stared at her from behind masks, others watched on a Zoom feed. But for 25 minutes, in June 2021, everyone was locked in on the Victory Collegiate High School junior as she presented her AP Research project, “HIV/AIDS Education in NYCDOE South Brooklyn High Schools.” With confidence and levity, Teanna walked her audience through a slide deck outlining data demonstrating that South Brooklyn public school students receive a suboptimal HIV/AIDS education, based on woefully outdated information, with real-world consequences. It was a tough subject and a potentially tough audience, but she owned the room. When it was over, her serious face gave way to a mile-wide smile and arms raised in celebration.

To say it went well is an understatement. She earned a 4 in the class. (The highest score a student can earn is a 5.) But, more importantly, her work was so engaging and convincing that, six months later, she taught a six-part, Department of Education-mandated HIV/AIDS class to her entire school.

Watching Teanna work, you’d never know that when she walked into her first AP Seminar class—her first AP class, period—in October 2019, her teacher had to ask the shy, anxious sophomore, “Can I call on you?”

“The hardest part about Seminar was putting myself out there,” Teanna, 17, says. “I was in the class with a bunch of juniors, people I didn’t really have classes with and didn’t really know. I had a really hard time talking to other people about my ideas.”

It was a natural response from a young person almost literally thrown into an AP classroom.

Teanna was in a regular English class when the school’s principal told her that, starting the next day, she’d be in AP Seminar. Not the usual AP origin story. But advanced coursework is a relatively new experience at Victory Collegiate, an AP for All school. There isn’t yet a tradition of taking those more demanding classes. Still, Teanna’s mom, an elementary educator in New York’s public school system, knew the importance of her daughter getting every opportunity. So she advocated for her daughter to be an AP student. And thanks to Teanna scoring high enough on state assessment exams, she earned a place in AP Seminar.

“That was the first year I taught the class, and the criteria I used for it was not necessarily who was the brightest kid in the school with the highest test grades and averages, but who was willing to put in the work,” says Megan Lane, an English teacher and Victory Collegiate’s AP Capstone teacher.

Seated female student on the right, pointing at a screen on the left full of percentages and graphs

Courtesy Megan Lane

Teanna Williams walks her audience of students, teachers, and viewers on Zoom through the data set she used in her AP Research work.

Many of the 33-person cohort were Lane’s English students the year before. She had a rapport with them, which made for a raucous class. But it created a tough environment for Teanna—a younger newcomer dealing with anxiety issues. Even if she felt like an outsider, though, her teacher saw another dynamic. “The kids in the class had a very high level of respect for her work ethic and the way she was able to hold her own,” Lane says.

That became clear to Teanna, too, once she began presenting to the class. “I would freeze up and be scared, and everyone would be, like, ‘Just keep going. It’s OK,’” she remembers. “It was such a sense of encouragement that, even if I didn’t feel like I fit in, I knew they had me.”

What really gave her confidence a rocket boost, though, was the day-to-day interactions with her Seminar classmates. “Anyone who needed help came to me and we would go back and forth,” Teanna says. “I liked the relationship. I felt like I was able to help build myself up by helping the other people in the class and having their respect and feedback on what I was doing. I knew I had a purpose to be there.”

By the time the pandemic sent everyone remote, the 33-student class dropped to 23. Those who remained were tight enough to have a motto: “Only the strong survive.” “That was what we lived by because it was really, really difficult,” Teanna says. “But even though it was difficult, it was nice.”

All In On Research
 

Teanna earned a 4 in AP Seminar, and when she entered AP Research in Fall 2021 it was with a well-earned sense of belonging. She wasn’t the outsider anymore—she deserved to be there, in this AP class and in this community that became the center of her school life.

“Research was really fun for me, and it was the saving grace for the remote year,” Teanna says. “It was hard waking up and going to all these baby classes and just waiting with that anticipation of going to Research, with kids that I liked and talking about things we were doing.”

What Teanna was doing was trying to make sense of why students in her school had such weird retrograde attitudes about HIV/AIDS. It was a question she began asking during the pandemic lockdown. She watched a lot of TV, and one of her favorite series was Pose, whose second season focused heavily on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s. Teanna remembers thinking she learned basic information about the disease in ninth grade, taught by a health clinic employee. But Pose had her wondering why so much was left out. That she was thinking about this in the midst of a global pandemic amplified the questions—and magnified the gaps.

“I realized when I was solidifying [my Research question] that covid-19 was a virus and everyone was trying to find vaccines to kill it,” Teanna says. “But with HIV, that was also a virus, but there weren’t any vaccines or cures. And I just reflected on, This is why I need to do this. As a queer person of color, I knew that if HIV affected people the same way covid did, there would have been a cure, there would have been something to stop what was going on. HIV was a virus and it deserved the same respect as covid. This is a life-or-death thing, and it deeply affected me.”

Woman in a red coat sits on the aisle between two rows of church pews, where behind her dozens of people pretend to be dead on the floor while churchgoers in the pews attend mass

Macall Polay/FX

Angel (Indya Moore) in a scene from the second season of Pose, which recreates a "die-in" at St. Patrick's Cathedral, in New York, on December 10, 1989, organized by the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

When Teanna thought more deeply about her experience with the subject in her school, she realized students repeated old stigmas and stereotypes and snickered about a disease they believed didn’t impact them. Lane noted that this reflected, in part, that DOE HIV/AIDS curricula that hadn’t been updated since 2013.  “There were a lot of elements that these students didn’t know or just didn’t realize,”  Lane says. “This is not the ‘80s, this is not just a ‘gay man’s disease’ and they are very much affected by it.  It was really brave of Teanna to stand up and say, ‘No, we need to address this.’”

Honing the focus of her research study was easy. Finding the data and information she needed in the middle of a pandemic was a different story. (Teanna’s mother is immunocompromised, making in-person research out of the question.) So Teanna got creative. She built a 24-question online survey, then emailed 45 teachers in five South Brooklyn schools to ask them to share it. In the end, 111 students participated. But then came a second challenge: what to do with all that information. “I didn’t really take any statistics or higher math classes, so it was hard to make sense of the data,” Teanna says. “But with the help of my classmates and a few teachers, I was able to curate the results and make a really bomb paper.”

She also had the help of Conor Mulvaney, a friend of Lane’s and an HIV interventionist, working towards his MSW at NYU in Social Work Research at the same time as Teana was doing her research. Mulvaney became an important sounding board and mentor for Teanna, reading through drafts of her research work, giving her notes and tips, and generally encouraging her curiosity and enthusiasm. “He would never tell me I was wrong or that something I said was stupid, but he would get me into a new way of thinking,” Teanna says. “His perspective really helped develop my paper into something a lot stronger than it would have been without him.”

The support of people like Lane, Mulvaney, and, indeed, her classmates turned this once shy student into a fearless force. For one assignment, Teanna presented a 90-second research proposal—not only to test the validity of her project, but to practice public speaking. Unbeknownst to her, the district superintendent had dropped into the Zoom room. What he heard was a confident junior calling out the DOE for not providing its students a worthwhile HIV/AIDS education. It was a point driven home when one of her classmates raised his hand to ask what “undetectable equals untransmittable” meant.

“I’ll always have respect for that kid because he made my point sound even more valid,” Teanna says. “There was so much basic stuff that a lot of the kids didn’t know. And I hope that seeing firsthand that there was some sort of disparity made the superintendent want to make changes in HIV/AIDS education or sex education as a whole.”

That’s exactly what happened—even if Teanna had to wait a bit.

Seated female student on the right, smiling with hands raised in celebration

Courtesy Megan Lane

Teanna Williams celebrates after completing her AP Research presentation.

The Student Becomes the Teacher
 

As the year ended, she discussed with Lane what to do with all the material she had amassed. They had the idea of giving it to teachers and administrators to inform updates to the DOE-mandated HIV/AIDS classes. Teanna pitched a faculty meeting and emailed the principal and vice principal but didn’t make much progress.

When the next school year began that September, though, vice principal Sheena Garwood-Kenwood was now the principal and she reached out to Teanna. “I didn’t forget your research,” Garwood-Kenwood told her. “So I want you to develop a curriculum surrounding HIV and AIDS education.” In November, Teanna heard from the school again: they wanted her to create the class—and teach it to the entire school. She had one month. No pressure.

Teanna was certainly up to the task. But there’s a big difference between one 25-minute presentation for a small group and leading six classes for nearly 300 students and their teachers over Google Meet. Add to that the school’s culture, and Teanna was afraid.

“Someone who is gay coming into this very homophobic community, talking about something that’s not just for gay people and telling people who are stuck in their ways that they’re wrong—I expected it to be really, really hard to get interested or motivated,” Teanna says. “But I got so much positive feedback. People gave me fist bumps in the hallway, like, ‘Oh, you’re the person that taught AIDS.’ Making people aware—that was the whole goal of what I wanted to do.”

It’s one that will likely live long after she leaves Victory Collegiate. Teanna designed the classes to be adaptable and updatable. So even after she graduates, future students can benefit from her expertise and insight.

“I’m so proud of her,” Lane says. “It would be very easy for her to skate by and still do well, and I have watched her push herself and take risks and do things nobody is doing around her. She’s doing it on her own. It’s not like she’s in a class of all these high achievers and trying to keep up. She’s setting the pace for herself, and she’s exceeding.”

Headshot photo of Teanna Williams smiling in a graduation cap and gown against a green background

Courtesy Teanna Williams

Teanna Williams in her senior year photo—ready to take on the world.

Teanna’s success in AP Seminar and AP Research and the leadership she demonstrated teaching those classes is proof of her achievement. But if that isn’t enough: She graduates in June as valedictorian.

In the fall she’ll attend Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York, majoring in ethics and public policy and participating in the school’s five-year accelerated Scholar Teacher Education Program, where she’ll earn a BA and MA in early childhood education.

“I always wanted to work in education,” Teanna says. “But after doing Research and realizing how much fun I had either collecting the data or just overall making change, I realized that I wanted to go into educational research or education policy. It definitely helped me figure out what I want to do in the future. That was what Research did for me.”

Lane adds that Teanna didn’t even know “educational researcher” was an option before taking AP Seminar. “The fact that Teanna is even thinking about it as a career, that’s what I want to see and that’s what I love to get out of this class,” she adds. “Teanna is such a prime example of what could happen when you’re determined to put yourself in these different positions that you normally wouldn’t attempt to do.”

Teanna agrees, and she encourages every student to try an advanced class—especially if they don’t think there’s a place for them in it.

“Seminar and Research taught me how important my ideas are and how important my voice is,” Teanna says. “I think that a lot of kids, especially like me, would really benefit from taking a class like that. If you’re scared or nervous, it’ll be OK. Put yourself out there, stick up for yourself. The most important thing to know is that you do belong. Even though it will be hard and you’ll cry and you’ll scream and you’ll be angry that things aren’t going your way, it’s so worth it.”