Christopher Emdin agreed to answer a few questions about his new book, Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success.
You can read an interview I did with him about one of his previous books at ‘For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...': An Interview With Chris Emdin.
Christopher Emdin is on the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the author of the award-winning book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-hop Generation and The New York Times bestseller, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood.. and the Rest of ya’ll too.
You begin the book asking reader to “imagine a school system that is designed for students’ complete self-actualization.” “Maslow before Bloom” is a very popular saying among many educators these days, though I suspect what people mean by that phrase differs a great deal. I recognize that your entire book is about this, but if you asked a teacher to describe what they were doing in their classroom to further their students’ self-actualization, what are a few things you’d like to hear in response?
Your suspicion would be correct. The entire notion of Maslow before Bloom cannot exist in a system that has not provided and cannot configure itself in a way that allows for the basic needs of young people to be met. Waiting on a system that has been designed to deny security, safety, belonging, and love before you can remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create knowledge would mean that some children would never get to learn. They would never get to knowledge consumption let alone knowledge construction.
My take is not “Maslow before Bloom.” It is despite Maslow, we can still bloom. This is not to say that we do not concern ourselves with ensuring that children’s basic needs are met. It is to say that the fact that certain needs have not been met has meant that the path to building and gaining knowledge has shifted. The child who has been robbed of security, safety, belonging, and love is still very capable of creating new and original work in a way that reflects the highest levels of Bloom. The issue becomes whether or not schools (teachers, school leaders, academics) can see the imaginative, creative, and nontraditional ways that they do so and create opportunities in the classroom for their genius to be expressed.
What I want a teacher to be able to say is that in my classroom, my students have been provided their basic and fundamental rights to be. In the last chapter of Ratchetdemic, I write about the rights of the body. That is the answer I would be looking for. I would want that teacher to tell me my students have a right to be here (to feel like this is my classroom and I am not a guest here). They have a right to feel (to express emotion without judgment or critique for their truth). The right to act (to use their bodies as they learn—to jump, play, move as they learn). The right to love and be loved (to bring in what they love to be a part of their learning). The right to speak truth to power (to advocate for themselves and their community without being shut down). The right to see things from a different perspective (to design their learning in the way they see), and finally, the right to knowledge and high academic expectations. A classroom focused on those rights of the body are what self-actualization is all about.
You write that “The ratchetdemic educator understands that true knowledge is not given; it is discovered.” There is a sizable portion of educators in the K-12 world who say that a version of direct instruction is a far, far more effective instructional strategy than discovery learning or assisted-discovery learning. What would you say to them?
I would ask these educators to tell me what effective means. I would also ask them effective at doing what? These are essential questions. Effective learning is learning that sticks with you after the test and the school year is over. Sure, direct instruction is effective—if the goal is efficiency in giving students information in a small amount of time to be given back to the teacher later. HOWEVER, true teaching is only effective when it triggers something that lasts forever or sparks a desire in the student to discover more beyond the classroom.
Knowledge is a pursuit. It is a never-ending journey that is sparked by a desire to get more of it. How can we contain an infinite concept like knowledge to the simple notion of one person giving some information to another person. Think of all the things you were taught in school that you have forgotten and then think about the things you know well. You will find that what you know well is what you discovered, not what you were told or given.
You write, “When education is about becoming someone ‘better’ without recognizing the excellence in who we already are, we alter the world as it should be and tilt it toward inequity.” You extensively elaborate on that theme. Looking at students through these kinds of “asset” lens instead of “deficit” ones seems to be counter to the institutional structure of most schooling and what is rewarded. What are some specific actions teachers can take on their own to move in the asset direction, and what can they do to help move colleagues in the same way?
The first thing teachers must do is understand that there is no way to undo images, perceptions, projections, or ideas about other people they have spent a lifetime creating. This is not about blame or guilt. It is about recognition. The issue we currently have is that those who have become aware that they hold some deficit perspectives approach the work of sharing what they know with a “holier than thou” approach. You don’t tell people, “You have a deficit lens and you are racist.” You say, “We all have deficit lenses and we need to collectively work on seeing students more fully.”
The next step is to understand how and why schools foster what you describe as a deficit view. Throughout Ratchetdemic, I give history, experiences, narratives that show that deficit lenses aren’t an individual problem but are a function of institutions. They are constructed and then fed to individual teachers. Our work is to face what we do as well as what we are explicit in accepting.
The individual work is about what you surround yourself with. Read more diverse perspectives. Leave your neighborhood and go into other communities, talk to children when class is over about things other than the content. Most importantly, know who YOU are first before trying to find out who someone else is.
The practical work around the troubling deficit lenses is articulated in my previous book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and touched on in Ratchetdemic. Engage in cogenerative dialogues with students. Let them teach your lessons so you can learn from them. Create cosmopolitan spaces for self-expression where you can see young people be themselves without making judgments. There is no script, but there is a process. The work of seeing students as they are is a constant process.
In the book, you write about how Black youth in particular suffer because of the structure of most schooling and the racism inherent in much of it. It’s not unusual for many white teachers to feel defensive when challenged on their implicit or explicit racism, even though research shows that it’s present in the profession. There are questions about the impact of professional development in changing this situation, and some suggest teachers examining their school data for bias can be more effective. What are your suggestions for moving the needle on teacher racism?
Sometimes, the best way to address racism in education is by identifying benchmarks we agree on, showing how they are not being met for students, and concurrently showing these students’ genius in contexts beyond the school/classroom.
Professional development should focus on the mathematical genius on the sports field, the creative genius, the storytelling in youth poetry, and the critical thinking in the games they play. When teachers have learned to see youth genius, we can reintroduce the realities around poor outcomes.
What this process does is begin a revelation of the shortcomings of the educator. A revelation of their bias and uncovering of the flaws in the existing system are revealed to the educator in this process. We don’t have to convince teachers that the challenges in meeting academic benchmarks are a function of their racism and the biases they hold. We simply have to create the conditions to allow them to see it for themselves. This is what professional development should look like.
Professional development around race and racism cannot be about being accusatory. We must approach it like we approach classroom teaching. The teacher is a student or learner. They must uncover the knowledge for themselves. There is no space for fear, shame, or guilt in learning. It is about allowing truth to be revealed and trusting that those who teach do so because they want to do right by young people.
Your book has been published in the middle of a firestorm created by conservative critics of critical race theory and any kind of anti-racism teaching. Because of this hysteria, it’s possible that some teachers in some areas might get challenged for applying some of your ideas. What would you say specifically to teachers in those communities?
The critics of critical race theory have no idea what it is. For the most part, they have no idea what teaching and learning requires. Teachers must understand that the CRT debate is simply an attempt to distract teachers from doing what they have been charged to do—engage, motivate, and inspire all their students. Teachers cannot do this work unless they understand the structures their schools are built upon and the conditions that affect how these students learn. The way that we challenge the CRT critics is by leaning into our expertise in teaching and learning.
To teach, in this season where the powers that be are doing everything in their power to rob you of the tools you need to be effective for your students, is a revolutionary act. One cannot do that kind of work with fear or with doubt about who they are and what they need to do for their students. When all is said and done, all we have to leave in this world is our legacy. To cower to those who do not honor the sacred space that is the classroom is to betray our legacy. To bend to those whose intention is to use us as political pawns is to betray this legacy. I teach to make children whole, and that requires tackling ANYTHING that robs them of the opportunity to be their best selves whether a politician or pundit likes it or not.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?
To be Ratchetdemic is to embrace a philosophy that when merged with the theory and practice outlined in For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood, opens up a new dimension of teaching and learning. There is no time more essential for us to embrace this approach. The lives of our children and the future of our society depend on it.
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.