Reality Pedagogy

Way back in 2016, before the pandemic and so much else, Columbia University Teachers College professor Christopher Emdin published For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too. Emdin is a successful academic and scholar, an innovative practitioner, and an important public voice. He also knows social media and what sticks – check out his hip hop education site as evidence.

The book was well-received and for good reason. It is very well written, informed, and speaks to a vitally important problem, the failure of education to engage inclusively. Emdin states his thesis formally, but the book is no sterile treatise. It uses first-person experience, mixing the real with the abstract. First, though, the key theme – “if aspiring teachers from these programs (Teach for America as one example) were challenged to teach with an acknowledgement of, and respect for, the local knowledge of urban communities, and were made aware of how the models for teaching and recruitment they are a part of reinforce a tradition that does not do right by students, they could be strong assets for urban communities. However, because of their unwillingness to challenge the traditions and structures from which they were borne, efforts that recruit teachers for urban schools ensure that Carlisle-type practices continue to exist.” It is a super argument.

And just case the reference is new to you, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was an institution founded in the late 1800s to “civilize” indigenous children. Funded and run by the government, supported by charities and many of the “best” reformers, it used rigid discipline and harsh methods to “Americanize” native American students. From new names to forced hair cuts, strict socialization was employed in the best interest of the students. While it shuttered during World War I, the Carlisle School’s legacy as an imperialist educational enterprise remains. It is powerful example of how the state can marshal resources, power and support to erase cultural difference.

Emdin’s attention is not on educational history or the structure of schools. He writes to fellow teachers, those who aspire to bring the joy of learning to all. He is intimately familiar with the hard work, the minutiae of managing a classroom, and the heart-breaking frustration of students’ indifference and anger. He desperately wants students and teachers to succeed – and he knows, too, that it is very likely that students and their teachers will come from different backgrounds, races and cultures. How to teach so that students learn and grow is what the book is all about.

Emdin’s primary first-person focus is about teaching to a Black urban student body, but his pedagogy, thinking and lessons are about more. The “hood” he refers to is any less-resourced community. He thoughtfully uses “Neo-indigenous” as a framing for urban youth. From those strong foundations, he walks the reader through a range of challenges, responses, innovations and possibilities. Emdin is clearly an amazing educator, open to all manner of models and ideas, from the Pentecostal Church to rap. This is the sort of book that could offer insight to any teacher, new or experienced.

What particularly resonated with me was Emdin’s underlying faith and optimism. He is a democrat with a lower case “d” – an educator whose belief and commitment to the value of every single student stands as an inspiration and reinforcement to every educator. It is the kind of affirmation that makes us want to innovate, to push ourselves harder, to make certain that we do whatever we can reach and support every single learner.

David Potash

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