Why This Teacher Says More Classrooms Should Be Modeled After Gangs

He's written a how-to guide for getting low-income students engaged in school.
Art by Marvin Bruin from Beats for Change. Portfolio, www.marvinbruin.com.

Christopher Emdin says he knows how to get poor, black kids interested in school, and it involves treating his classrooms more like gangs.

Gangs give their members true responsibility, says Emdin, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. They make their members feel like they're part of a family -- a unit that will protect them. They give members a sense of "cosmopolitanism," or make them feel they're valued citizens of a larger community.

"I want that same type of energy in the classroom," said Emdin, who spent years as a K-12 science and math teacher in underprivileged areas. "I want kids to feel like they are responsible for each other's learning, that they have their own special handshake. I want them to feel like they have their own special name. I want them to feel like the classroom wouldn’t run or operate without them."

"Cosmopolitanism" is one of the techniques Emdin outlines in his new book, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood...And The Rest Of Y'all Too to get students engaged in the classroom. His book, which is targeted at white educators and other educators who might not come from the same communities as their students, preaches a larger method of teaching called "reality pedagogy." Reality pedagogy "is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goal of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf," he writes. It acts as a counter to what he calls "white folks' pedagogy," the pre-eminent method of teaching he says fails to take students' cultures into account and instead expects them to cater to dominant white culture.

Emdin says his brand of reality pedagogy involves using hip hop battles to promote science education and encouraging students to speak their minds during dialogue sessions. He meets students where they are, takes special care in respecting their specific life circumstances and celebrates their cultures.

Instead of arguing for increased efforts to recruit teachers of color, Emdin writes that "there must be a concerted effort to improve the teaching of white teachers who are already teaching in these schools, as well as those who aspire to teach there, to challenge the 'white folks' pedagogy' that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds."

We spoke with Emdin about his new book and his techniques for getting under-served students to succeed in school.

Christopher Emdin

Tell me a little bit about your personal background and what made you want to write this book.

In high school, I became aware of the fact that my teachers in many ways were great people who didn’t understand me and my neighborhood. Then, I found myself back in the classroom after undergrad. The early ideas I had about why teachers were ineffective started to make sense. Many of my teachers were ineffective because they didn’t know how to be effective. As I became a professor in education, a couple things became apparent. We think we’re doing revolutionary work when we say "be culturally relevant," but none of these educators really understand how to do it. That was the case when I was in high school, it was the case when I was teaching, it’s the case now. The book is really a response to all that frustration.

The title is very unapologetic because I think the reality is that a majority of teachers that work in urban spaces are white and don’t come from those communities. A majority of them are really well-intentioned but have no idea how to do this work properly.

What were your teachers like when you were a kid?

One of my favorite teachers ever, I still speak to her today. She was amazing because she understood me, and when she didn’t understand me, she made an effort to try and understand me. Unfortunately, I remember many other teachers who were not so amazing. They would take my sense of humor, or my expression of my cultural identity and perceive that as me not being interested in what was going on in school or being purposefully disruptive.

There are teachers of color I had with white supremacist ideologies. They were black teachers that bought into the idea that urban youth of color are inherently violent or anti-academic. That’s who "...the Rest of Y'all Too" is.

In your book, you describe your students as "neoindigenous." You write: "Like the indigenous, the neoindigenous are a group that will not fade into oblivion despite attempts to rename or relocate them. The term neoindigenous carries the rich histories of indigenous groups, acknowledges powerful connections among populations that have dealt with being silenced, and signals the need to examine the ways that institutions replicate colonial processes." Tell me more about this concept.

When we talk about race, class, ethnicity, diversity, what populations have been underserved by the school system, we oftentimes go immediately to urban education and youth of color. But this is not the first time this has happened. We can look historically at the experiences of indigenous populations in the United States and understand that those populations were in many ways oppressed by schooling that was supposed to be a path toward emancipation. These two distinct groups who are years apart and have different types of experiences culturally, have the same types of challenge with traditional institutions of education.

With models like the Carlisle school where indigenous populations were forced to extract their culture from their learning experiences, we find the same thing in urban education today.

Tell me a little bit about what a school would look like if it embraced neoindigenous students and black culture?

I close my eyes and dream about these schools. Sometimes I visit schools where there is some smidgen of it and I wish we could expand it to the whole thing. Kids wouldn’t be dead silent in classrooms -- they'd be loud and alive and use their hands and gestures and use metaphors and analogies. Parents would be in the school on a consistent basis because the school would give them a lounge. There wouldn’t be zero-tolerance policies where kids would get suspended just for any minor infraction.

In the book you say neoindigenous students should be taught to code switch. Why do you think this is, and how should it be incorporated into schools?

Oftentimes teachers teach students about academic content by using academic language, like, "I want you to understand a concept of genetics and I'm going to use a bunch of words related to genetics that you don’t understand." So I'm asking you to understand something using words you don’t understand and expressions that mean nothing to you. Part of the theme of the book, the reality pedagogy, is welcoming localized knowledge. If a kid can describe a concept using vernacular or slang or hood talk, whatever you want to describe it, you would accept that as valuable and conceptually correct.

As a teacher, you then say, "OK, well that’s correct conceptually, but if you want to be able to spit that at a college professor or explain to an academic then you have to use more academic language." Code switching is sometimes perceived as switching off who you are and becoming something other than you. In my view, it's being able to switch back and forth between who you are and who you need to be based on a particular space. The end goal of code switching is hybridity.

What do you want the takeaway of your book to be for white teachers who work in urban schools?

It's not the same thing as working anywhere else. Just because you were trained to be an effective educator and have a kind heart, or someone said, "Hey you'd be really good with kids," that’s not good enough. This work requires much more, and the much more can be fun. But just going in there thinking you're going to be successful by virtue of who you are isn’t going to cut it.

Oftentimes what happens is, teachers go to a school misinformed about the kids, miseducated about how to be effective, then end up being ineffective and creating narratives about how it’s the kids' faults.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.


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