Earlier this week I called Dr. Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, “the most important work of pedagogy I’ve read in the last ten years. I wanted to follow-up with a Q&A with Dr. Emdin, asking him about the roots of his pedagogy and why he thinks it’s a necessary approach for our current times. He answered these questions via email.
Dr. 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. 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.
John Warner: I feel like we have to start with your framing of urban students as "neoindigenous." How did you develop the framework? Why do you think it's important to understanding the dynamic of what's going on in "the hood?"
Dr. Christopher Emdin: I find that many of the conversations related to urban education involve exchanges about how to make sense of inequities and achievement gaps, overcrowded and underfunded schools, zero tolerance policies for minor discipline infractions, and most recently, the demonization of particular populations based on their race and class. These conversations often take on a very personal nature; with educators, school administrators, and parents entering into the conversation speaking from the challenges they experience every day. Teachers talk about particular students in their classrooms that they have challenges with, administrators talk about teachers they struggle with or district level challenges that are “getting in the way” of their effectiveness, parents talk about a particular teacher or school leader that treats their child unfairly, and no one considers that there are larger structures at play that brings all these people together into the cycle of dysfunction they are currently in.
I frame urban youth as neoindigenous to make it clear that the challenges of urban education are not new. The issues we are currently facing are not unique to this point in time, and have not just been experienced by the Black and Latino/a youth that occupy urban schools. Indigenous populations in the United States and across the globe have experienced (and in many ways continue to experience) the same challenges as youth of color in urban communities. Indigenous history tells us that schools and schooling have always been used as a tool for sending messages about self-worth, a way to affirm the intelligence of particular groups and the lack thereof of others, a means to extract local indigenous culture and replace it with Western norms and ideals. Once connections between the indigenous and neoindigenous (urban youth) are made contemporary educators can see how these same processes play out in schools today and impact the ways teachers teach and students learn.
Identifying urban youth as neoindigenous is also an attempt to highlight the fact that educational stakeholders outside of the communities where they teach have always believed that what they are doing is what is right for students without considering the voices of the students and their communities. This is an exercise in dysfunction. This was the story of indigenous education in the Americas and is the story of urban America.
JW: It strikes me that the vast majority of time, energy, and money being poured into so-called education “reform,” as well-meaning as these initiatives may be, is seriously misdirected.
CE: One of the underlying messages of the book is that improving urban education is traditionally framed as an effort that requires much time, energy, and money when the most impactful things we can be doing to improve education costs us nothing. The same time and energy spent in maintaining dysfunction can be used to teach differently. The money spent on maintaining the status quo and repetitively launching and re-launching education initiatives that are often just new names for the same old practices, theories and ideas that have proven not to work could be invested in directly addressing much more significant issues like poverty in urban communities and the world writ large. Good teaching practice and transformative learning spaces can be put in place for free if we recognize that we have been doing teaching and learning wrong for a very long time and are willing to try something different. Through reality pedagogy, I am outlining a new theory for urban education that is birthed from of age-old practices that folks of color in urban communities have known to do but have never had the opportunity to implement in schools.
A well-meaning ineffective teacher can be more dangerous than one that doesn’t care at all. I find that it is much more challenging to guide and support a teacher who means well and is convinced that a flawed approach to teaching is what is right to do than it is to guide a teacher who doesn’t seem to care by showing them why they should care and then give them tools to make them effective educators for their students. I know that sounds like one of the quotes at the end of my book that I share to give teachers something to think about or argue about but it is true. Good intentions do not equate to being a good teacher. Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to developing good education policy either. They often lead to wasted time, energy, and money when they are not matched with the right philosophy and an understanding of solid community rooted and reality focused/rooted pedagogy.
JW: Taken as a whole, I read the book as a plan for meeting students where they are and teaching them from that place; you call it "reality pedagogy." I'm going to anticipate the objections of some of my readers/commenters: Why shouldn't we see this as "pandering" to students?
CE: You are absolutely correct. The book is in many ways a plan of action for helping us to implement an approach to teaching and learning that considers the voice of young people. I feel as though a lot of educational research identifies the fact that we need to understand where youth come from and use their voice to inform our practice but stops short at providing teachers with plans of action or practical and tangible ways to enact the type of approaches that theorists and researchers put forth. Teachers need narrative insight into real life scenarios about what can go wrong and what does go right. In many ways, this book provides that. The work is much more of an effort to teach teachers to be more effective than it is an effort to pander to students. With that being said, my work is an effort to bring value to students and their voice. My work suggests that educators (particularly those not from the communities where they teach) do involve privileging their voice and if it is defined by someone as pandering, I would suggest looking at what the word pandering means. For too many urban educators, being shaken out of your comfort zone is perceived as something negative rather than a path towards being a better teacher. Is being shaken out of your preconceptions about students and then guided towards understanding the complexities of their culture pandering?
By definition, to pander is to “do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper or good.” It’s an interesting word because my work certainly does focus on providing urban youth with what they demand and that they are not receiving. For some, that may fall under the definition of pandering. However, the contention arises when we are discussing if the work is “not proper or good.” That aspect of the definition is very subjective. If the focus is on equity, the success of students who are underserved in schools and even on addressing the overwhelming statistics related to how dropout rates, and entanglement with the criminal justice system can be directly linked to poor experiences in urban schools, focusing on youth culture is proper or good and could not even be perceived as pandering. However, if the focus is on maintaining the system as it stands; to maintain the comfort of institutions and those they represent and not demanding that they engage in a different approach to teaching, it is not right or good to expect more. For a person from this vantage point, the work may be pandering. The question you must ask them is who defines what is right to do.
I can unequivocally state that one cannot define a practice as pandering if it is not perceived as such when practiced somewhere else. If young people from socioeconomically advantaged communities are allowed to inform how they are taught and have their ethnic and cultural backgrounds represented in the school and expressed by their teachers, it cannot be pandering to advocate for that same type of practice in urban communities. It is not pandering if you're creating the space for somebody to tell you how to treat them better. I would argue that you're doing is fostering equity, becoming attentive to a previously silenced voice, and allowing your teaching to be better.
JW: I actually think the idea of "reality pedagogy" extends beyond "the hood," into any classroom. For me, I see it in how I may try to deal with my students' relationships with their smart phones. I've tried banning them, but it doesn't work. Lately, I've been asking them to teach me about their use, and I recently got a lesson on Snapchat. I realized in that moment that I'd accidentally stumbled on an aspect of reality pedagogy, that I was asking them to show me some things about a domain of their expertise. It seems like you put this to work in what you call "cogenerative dialogues."
CE: Reality pedagogy is a framework that has value in any educational setting. Its purpose is to create spaces where the teacher and student engage with a respect for each other’s strengths, shortcomings, perspectives, and goals so that the teacher evolves to become the most effective educator for the students and the students become their best selves in the classroom. With this approach, the teacher is the content expert, and the students are the experts in the delivery of the content to other students. Each group learns from each other and content knowledge is exchanged for cultural knowledge between the teacher and his/her students. You are correct that this approach would be helpful in any classroom with any group of students. Your discovery of Snapchat with your students is a perfect example of how reality pedagogy allows the teacher to evolve and become more effective at their craft by understanding a phenomenon that has cultural significance to the students. The cogenerative dialogue simply creates the space for conversations where youth can engage with the teacher on a more personal level than would be able to happen in a traditional classroom. For me, it is just part of a number of approaches outlined in the book that can help all teachers be more effective for all students. Its use in urban classrooms with White teachers who may not share the same cultural backgrounds as their students is much more powerful than its outcomes in other spaces because the cultural barriers between students and teachers in these communities make it less likely for them to exchange about anything other than the content.
JW: I see some similar tensions to what you identify in K-12 teaching in the current wave of student protests on college campuses. Specific campus particulars aside, the common message from protesters seems to be “Stuff’s messed up and we want something done.” Sometimes those things students want done may appear to be unreasonable or impossible, but I’m personally sympathetic to the underlying origins of their discontent. Stuff is messed up. But administrations often seem befuddled about how to properly respond. It seems like a practice and tradition of “cogenerative dialogs” might do some good here.
CE: The bottom line is that students do not voice discontent or resort to protest if they are being treated fairly. For youth of color from “the hood” or socioeconomically disadvantaged communities overwhelmingly populated by youth of color, their protests in schools and about how schools are oppressive spaces are cries for help and a last resort when all other efforts have failed. These are young people who have been raised to value education, respect authority, and learned from experience (and their parents’ experiences) in urban America that there will be consequences for speaking truth against the establishment. Yet, they have been so pushed to the margins and so damaged by schools and schooling that they throw caution to the wind and speak their truth. That is an indicator that “stuff is messed up” and a signal to institutions to find new ways of engaging with them and hearing from them about how to move forward in a way that meets their needs. The ideas set forth in the book are necessary in K-12 education, but also inform a new way forward in higher education and police–community relations. The best models for moving society forward are first established in our schools.