Following multiple reports of racial violence and unrest this summer, research conducted by educator and author Christopher Emdin on race, culture, and inequality in urban America may provide guidance for teachers and school leaders seeking to reach a greater understanding with their students at the start of the new school year.
Emdin knows how it feels to be an undervalued student of color in an urban school. As a young man, he attended the specialized Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City, where he felt misunderstood by his teachers and, as a result, he disengaged from academics.
Now an associate professor in the department of mathematics, science, and technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, Emdin published his second book this spring. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ... and the Rest of Y’all Too (Beacon Press, 2016) is part how-to guide for classroom teachers and part critical analysis of the dynamics of race in certain school settings.
As the title suggests, Emdin argues that teachers, especially white teachers, should re-examine their practice to understand the impact it can have on students whose backgrounds differ from their own. Through the use of “reality pedagogy"—his teaching philosophy grounded in the idea that empathy and respect play a critical role in student learning—Emdin believes that teacher and student can navigate their differences on an equal footing.
Commentary Intern Alex Lenkei recently spoke to Emdin by phone to discuss how urban school communities can better serve marginalized youths.
EW: I’d love for you to define the word “urban,” which you use in many contexts throughout the book to refer to students, schools, and communities. Can you help us unpack this word, because it is often used synonymously with the geographical identifier “inner city” as code for “nonwhite”?
Emdin: "[T]he hood,” in many ways, is what has been described as urban and sort of used interchangeably with inner city. I use that term and expression purposely because when folks say “urban,” they actually mean “the hood” or “inner city.” “Urban” becomes a way through which they can describe schools that have very particular characteristics—schools where the population is low-income, where youths are socioeconomically disadvantaged as a result of being low-income—and communities that have high incarceration rates and low graduation rates, where students are traditionally underperforming based on particular forms of assessments.
“Urban” outside of the context of schooling oftentimes refers to cities. In New York City, for example, “urban” could be 42st Street, it could be Chelsea, it could be places where a lot of wealth is accumulated. But when you say “inner-city” or you say “the hood,” it means to gloss over the places where there is money; gloss over the places where there are high concentrations of people who are socioeconomically advantaged—or who may have the opportunity to be able to have private education—and go right to those communities that are not doing well, that folks are scared to go to, that are mostly populated by black and brown people.
EW: You note that urban students are more disengaged in science than other subjects. To help reverse this trend, you created Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., an initiative that uses hip-hop and rap to engage urban students in science classrooms. Why are these students disengaged, and does it point to larger problems in science, technology, engineering, and math education?
Emdin: In K-12 STEM education, science, in particular, is viewed as being only for the “best and brightest,” for those who have the resilience to be able to overcome challenging academic subjects. We are attaching a perception that only particular populations can do well, and then there’s a general, writ-large consensus that urban youths of color are not part of the best and brightest. So when you put those two things together, there’s a perception that certain populations just can’t do well in those disciplines. When a young person who listens to hip-hop daily—or who can write a rhyme or perform a rhyme or memorize a rap album in three or four hours—starts realizing that they can actually be scientific using hip-hop, then you start changing the perceptions they may have about themselves in relation to disciplines like STEM.
EW: In the beginning of your book, you describe the traditional school structure as an authoritarian system that required you to conform to “white standards” in order to succeed academically. You also emphasize the role of this structure in reinforcing fear-based narratives where teachers view urban students—usually referring to black and Latino students—as violent or angry. Where does the responsibility for changing this structure lie?
Emdin: We are all collectively responsible for the existing structures of schooling, particularly the traditional structures of urban schooling. If we can all identify the fact that we do not have a good time in school spaces, why are we ensuring that the next generation also has a bad time? If the feeling isn’t good, and we’re all doing the same thing and not feeling well doing it, then we need to do something different. This is not just about students, although students are where my heart is—it’s also about teachers. Teachers have to be able to go into schools and feel comfortable there. They have to be able to go into schools and feel joy. I want teachers to be able to feel successful every day. We all must change the structures to allow those who are invested in the process of schooling to approach that work with a certain sense of joy, satisfaction, purpose, a certain sense of comfort in the teaching and learning process. But if we try to implant rigor onto flawed systems, it’s just going to lead to dysfunction.
EW: In one section of the book, you note the aesthetic similarities between a Detroit school and a neighboring correctional facility. To counteract the feeling of imprisonment urban youths may feel in school, you suggest teachers decorate their classrooms with artwork and quotes. Why is the classroom environment so overlooked, and how can educators apply the same principles to other spaces in the school?
Emdin: The classroom environment is overlooked because we have educators who are so deeply connected to this notion that academic rigor or academic success for young people only requires a hyperfocus on testing. I went to a school, and I went into a correctional facility, and they looked the same. The walls were bare. There were bars on windows, and beyond that the teachers were acting or teaching like wardens. They were yelling at students. They were so deeply involved in zero-tolerance policies and “don’t smile until November” and all these foolish things that they inherited from the schooling they received. The key to transforming schooling requires young people to feel as though they are learners, to feel as though they are welcome, to feel as though this place is about learning, and learning is a fun activity. There are messages that we send to young people simply by how our classrooms look, and if our classrooms look like prisons, students feel incarcerated. If students feel incarcerated, they don’t feel free enough to learn.
If you treat somebody like a prisoner and you make them feel like a prisoner, they’re going to respond by giving you prisoner behavior and attitude. And if you treat them like they’re valued and artistic, loving, learning beings, then they will respond in kind.
We cannot blame young people for giving us responses to oppressive structures that are negative when we are the ones who are creating the structures that invoke that response. If you treat somebody like a prisoner, they’re going to act like a prison inmate. If we treat somebody like they’re brilliant, they will express brilliance. If we treat somebody like they are free and excited about learning because you are excited about learning about them, then they feel like they have value.
EW: Early in your book, you talk about the trauma some urban students face both in their communities and in the simple act of going to school. In addition to teachers’ practicing reality pedagogy, how can school counselors and administrators—the whole school community, in fact—work to reduce these traumatic experiences that touch school campuses in order to better serve urban students?
Emdin: When we talk about trauma, we cannot identify the trauma somebody is experiencing unless we (a) bear witness to that trauma, meaning we see it ourselves; or (b) we create the spaces that allow them to feel comfortable enough to let go of that trauma. In an era where we’re so hyperfocused on reading and math skills, we don’t invest enough in the social-emotional spaces for young people, which means investing in school counselors. I was in a school the other day in Arizona, and they were telling me the statistics of school counselors to students. It was like 812-to-1. How can you say you value young people when you only invest in testing them and you don’t invest in their social-emotional well-being? I don’t need a $5 million grant. I just need people who are fully invested in young people and are willing to take on new tools for teaching and learning. That will transform schools.
EW: Do you have anything to add?
Emdin: I, by no means, write this book or share these tools or come up with reality pedagogy with the goal of saying, “It’s Emdin’s way or the highway.” What I am providing for teachers are simply tools to allow them to be able to develop pedagogical strategies that they need. This work is, in many ways, a labor of love. I don’t do it to make teachers uncomfortable. [The book is] called For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood because there are more white teachers in urban spaces than ever before, and oftentimes they come from backgrounds that don’t reflect the backgrounds of students, so those folks need as much help as possible. But the book is also named for “the rest of y’all too.” This is for black teachers who oftentimes take on the structures of traditional schooling and are just as ineffective. The work is about providing tools to make you better at your craft and do right by young people.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.