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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

‘For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...': An Interview With Chris Emdin

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 22, 2016 9 min read
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Educator Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood...and the rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, was officially published today and he graciously answered several of my questions last week.

Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. He is the creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. Emdin was named the 2015 Multicultural Educator of the Year by the National Association of Multicultural Educators and has been honored as a STEM Access Champion of Change by the White House. In addition to teaching, he serves as a Minorities in Energy Ambassador for the US Department of Energy.

LF: You make the point that, often, urban communities and the youth who live in them are viewed more through the lens of deficits instead of assets. That point of view seems to be reinforced by many of our institutions, including the media and our schools. What recommendations would you make to teachers about beginning steps they could take to move towards that more positive point of view?

Christopher Emdin:

I appreciate your acknowledgment of the role that both media and schools play in the creation and maintaining of deficit views of urban youth. While there is usually an acceptance that media constructs flawed narratives about urban youth, society often overlooks the ways that schools reinforce these narratives and cause them to fester in the minds and hearts of teachers. Zero-tolerance policies that punish and demonize youth for violating strict school rules that have nothing to do with teaching and learning encourage teachers to focus on everything but the academic potential of youth. In turn, teaching devolves into policing, and educators get transformed from life changers into wardens who are more invested in catching and punishing “bad students” than seeing them as children who desire academic success.

The most valuable thing any urban educator can do before working in urban communities is to engage in deep reflective work about who they are, what biases they hold, and why they have chosen to work in these communities. This self-work is more important and rigorous than any academic work one may engage in on the path towards becoming an effective teacher. It is a process that can begin with writing an autobiography that centers around the teachers’ experiences with urban communities and the youth who are from them. Teachers must ask and answer questions like, what was my first experience in communities like the one where I am teaching? When was the first time I interacted with a person of color from these communities? What feelings did I have during my previous experiences with youth from these neighborhoods? Am I planning to teach with an exit strategy in mind?

When the teacher asks these questions, many truths about their biases are revealed. These revelations can then guide their interactions with young people. The teacher who knows who they are is more critical of how these biases are played out in their interactions with students and inevitably interacts with students more positively.

LF: You write that many challenges in the classroom can be helped by teachers “seeing students in the same way they see themselves,” including acknowledging the trauma that students have experienced. Can you share some specific examples of how you think a teacher would act differently if they had that perspective?

Christopher Emdin:

Many urban teachers who come from communities more affluent than the ones where they teach see themselves as kindhearted people who work in these schools because they care about others who may be less fortunate or have fewer resources. These are overwhelmingly a group of people who have been recruited to urban schools by organizations that affirm their self-perceptions as educated, caring, and altruistic people. They come into the profession seeing themselves as heroes -and all people who see themselves as heroes feel like there has to be someone to save. This creates an image of students as victims to be saved or inherently bad, violent, and uneducated people to be enlightened. As a result, the humanity of students is lost to the ego of the teacher and it becomes easy for a teacher to see a student as a test score and data point and not a real person.

When teachers see students like they see themselves, they see the best in students. They see them as heroes that have overcome the challenges of living in communities that have been deprived of resources. Students are not seen as victims, but rather as peers to exchange information with. Once teachers see students as they see themselves, they ask students to give feedback on instruction, consider students’ thoughts and opinions on how the school operates, allow students to express their content knowledge in non-traditional ways, and engage with them both inside and outside of the classroom.

LF: I was struck by what you said could be learned by the teaching styles of Pentecostal clergy and barbers. I was a community organizer for nineteen years, and saw and experienced the leadership exhibited by both in the community. However, I don’t think I ever thought about how what they did could be applied to the classroom . Could you share some of what you think we teachers can learn from them?

Christopher Emdin:

The best teachers learn new things about their craft everyday. They recognize that there are people around them all the time who have developed talents that they can learn from and apply to their teaching. I find that Pentecostal clergy and barbers have honed many skills that are beneficial for urban teaching. They consistently interact with a wide array of people find ways to keep them engaged, have perfected the art of call and response, understand how to use music to set a tone, how to manage their time given tight restraints, can get a point across while “going off script”, can create the space for people to share their emotions, and generally make everyone around them feel comfortable. If teachers study what these experts do, they can be more effective.

LF: You write about the importance of “co-teaching” - not in the context of two traditional educators sharing a classroom but, instead, looking at students as teachers, too. Some teachers, including me, try to incorporate this idea through what are called “Genius Hours” and periodic similar activities, but it sounds like you’re suggesting a kind of “co-teaching” that would necessitate a deeper cultural change in the classroom. Can you talk a little about that?

Christopher Emdin:

I love the concept of Genius Hours. In many ways they capture the essence of what I argue for. The point is to give students the opportunity to showcase their brilliance by letting them take the helm of the classroom. Teachers can take it a step further by having youth teach the content they are responsible for learning and that they may be tested on at some point. I think students can and should be designing lesson plans, creating assessments, and teaching lessons. It empowers them, and also helps them to retain content.

LF: In the book, you write about a three-step process that teachers in urban communities should take -- first, “being in the same social spaces” with our students; next, “engaging with the context,” and then, “making connections between the out-of-school context and classroom teaching.” You give lots of examples, including playing basketball with students, visiting the religious congregations they attending, and going to the places where they live. Our school district and union, along with others, support teachers making home visits but it sounds like you’re suggesting a deeper immersion in the community is important. What do you say to teachers, who have their own families and personal lives, and who want to stay in the profession for a long-haul, who might question how realistic it is to make that kind of commitment?

Christopher Emdin:

You brilliantly captured three-step process I recommend, and I completely understand the apprehension about implementing this approach because of the fear that teachers may be sacrificing their personal lives and may negatively impact their career in the long run. What I always find fascinating is that this push back doesn’t consider the stress, frustration, feeling of being burnt-out that comes when the teacher cannot connect to students, and the students respond by purposefully challenging the teacher and deliberately giving him or her a hard time. I always tell teachers to never underestimate the power of enacting just one of my suggestions a month or even a semester. It directly improves their relationships with students - which indirectly helps their career longevity.

LF: You have an interesting section in the book about the classroom environment - what is put on the walls. Could you talk a little about that - what you think teachers should consider and why?

Classroom environment/context is one of the most under-focused upon dimensions of urban teaching and learning. I believe that teachers who use their classroom environment to set a positive and comfortable classroom tone are exponentially more successful than their peers. I don’t mean this philosophically. I mean literal attention to what the classroom looks like is important. I suggest curtains on windows, framed art created by students on the walls, quotes from hip-hop artists and other contemporary cultural icons that promote hard work and education should be prominently displayed, seats positioned in circles, walls painted with blackboard paint to allow youth to draw and write freely everywhere, and sections of the class structured for activities like reading, relaxing, and socializing with different types of furniture.

This is important because the classroom has to be a place where the students want to be. It also needs to be a place that challenges the ways that urban classrooms are supposed to look. The classroom that reflects the culture of youth while highlighting how beautiful it could be challenges the ways that the teacher and students engage with each other even before teaching begins.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Reality pedagogy; which is the approach to teaching and learning that I explore in For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood and the Rest of Ya’ll Too is an approach that can be implemented across settings. However, it is necessary in urban spaces where youth realities are not considered in curriculum or pedagogy. Through this book, I hope to carve a new way forward through larger theories but also practical suggestions for improving the experiences of urban youth in schools.

LF: Thanks, Chris!

I thought readers might also be interested in this video of Chris sharing more of his thoughts on education:

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.