Professional Development Opinion

Generalizing ‘For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ... and the Rest of Y’all Too’

By Starr Sackstein — July 22, 2018 5 min read
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Guest post by Dr. Douglas Green

Recently, I met Chris Emdin at a conference where he was the keynote speaker. After his emotional performance that was very well received, we had a conversation and exchanged signed copies of our respective books. Unlike mine, his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too was a New York Times bestseller. While his primary audience is the many white people who teach black kids in poor urban schools, I believe that the advice he gives can be generalized to just about any teaching/learning environment.

The key idea is that if you teach students who come from a very different culture than you do, you have to make a serious effort to understand the students’ culture and leverage this understanding to engage students as you teach. This involves visiting spaces where children spend time outside of school, using artifacts both real and virtual from their environment to anchor lessons, avoiding restrictive dress codes and wearing some ‘cool’ clothes yourself, engaging when possible in their games, knowing the music they listen to and adapting it as you plan lessons, and bringing social media into class.

He also suggests that you have conversations outside of class with small groups and that you allow these groups to suggest how to make classes better. The big idea is to promote student voice and ownership of the classroom environment in as many ways as possible. Students should not only decorate the space but also have responsibilities for making their own success possible.

My Experience With Different Cultures

For the thirteen years prior to my retirement, I was the principal of a K-5 school in Binghamton, New York where 90% of my 530 students were poor and 25% were refugees from a dozen different cultures from around the world. I could count on one hand the number of students whose culture outside of school resembled my own. I was fond of saying that everybody is different so nobody is different. Somehow the kids got along in spite of their differences.

I had three full-time ESL teachers and they helped me and the staff understand the importance of learning as much as we could about the cultures of the refugee students. Most were from war zones and had spent time in refugee camps under very harsh conditions. Others were from communist counties where they were persecuted for their religious beliefs. We also had grandchildren of American soldiers from Southeast Asia as a result of the Vietnam War. Each class had about five of these kids who came to the school speaking very little English.

Apart from the refugee kids, the other poor students were split between local white, black, and Hispanic populations. Some had roots in the area while many had moved in from places like New York City as Binghamton was much more affordable. For me, the most important subgroup was what I thought of as the refugees from New York City. When I started the job in 1993 they told me they were leaving the city to get out of dangerous neighborhoods. By the time I left they were leaving because they could no longer afford to live there. In a sense, they were economic refugees.

While the real refugees got a lot of service from my ESL teachers, the indigenous refugees did not even though they were coming from a very different culture and in many cases had been exposed to dangerous and violent neighborhoods. As a result, they often ended up in my office as the behavior they thought was normal didn’t meet the expectations of their teachers. If I had Chris’ book then I’m sure that I would have ordered a copy for every member of my staff.

As I look back, I see that I did what I could to learn about the many cultures of my students. I often rode the bus and made as many home visits as I could. Most parents didn’t have cars and lived at least a mile from the school. There was one housing project on a hill above the school on a road that lacked a sidewalk. Many also couldn’t afford telephones. This resulted in my being the first principal in the region to have a cell phone so that when I made a home visit, I could arrange for conversations between parents and teachers.

Even though some teachers weren’t tolerant of behaviors that arrived from ‘the hood,’ they did what they could to incorporate the many student cultures into their teaching. We all tried to learn some words from their languages and even some slang. I knew some French and I used it when I could to converse with my Haitian parents. I could see that they loved it. As a Swedish-American, I even brought some of my own culture into the school.

Lessons From My Previous Career

I started teaching a 7-12 school in Cortland, NY in 1971. As a chemistry teacher, my students were generally motivated and well behaved. Most came from a culture similar to my own and many were the children of college professors. There was, however, a poorer class of white kids who seldom made it to chemistry class that I encountered when I did cafeteria duty. I quickly realized that I had to get to know these students and their culture if I wanted lunchtime to be peaceful.

My point here is that even if you work in what seems like a homogeneous culture, it probably isn’t. There are almost certainly students who don’t share the modal culture and it’s up to teachers to learn about where they come from to better ensure engagement and success. The key idea, which is very popular in today’s education literature, is to know as much as you can about each student so that you can have relationships that will promote their success and make your life as a teacher more rewarding.

Even if you don’t teach ‘kids from the hood,’ I strongly suggest that you read Chris’ fine book. I’m sure you can grab some ideas from it that will allow you to better engage your students. If you are an administrator, read this book yourself and then strive to get copies into the hands of your staff. Respect for and knowledge of student cultures is vital if you want your students to buy into the instruction you provide. Thanks, Chris for helping our understanding of this key concept.

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