If I had read Dr. Chris Emdin’s newest book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Ya’ll Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (2016) prior to my first year of teaching, I would have been so much more equipped to work with urban youth of color. Aside from Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), it might be the most important book I’ve ever read about education.
I’ll admit my review isn’t going to be completely objective because for the past several years Dr. Emdin has become my mentor and friend. Instead of nullifying my review of his book, I believe my relationship with Dr. Emdin provides me a unique perspective and position form which I can testify to the pedagogy I’ve witnessed him live, breathe, and practice in contexts that range from the high school classroom, to an ivy league course, to his home in the Bronx, New York City. If you’d prefer a more detached, objective review, feel free to move on now.
Dr. Emdin has become instrumental in my development as a teacher. His teachings have improved my relationships with students in real-time, having a dramatic effect on my experiences in the classroom, and ultimately benefiting the diverse population of urban youth who I teach (and learn from) every day. Most of the readers following my blog are only here because of Kendrick Lamar’s visit to my school in June 2015. What the media failed to convey though, was that Dr. Emdin, in many ways, was responsible for creating the conditions that made that experience possible.
When I enrolled in Dr. Emdin’s course at Teachers College titled, “Hip-Hop & Cultural Studies in Urban Science Education,” I was already invested in the work of hip-hop pedagogy, but I was only just beginning to understand its potential. Halfway through that Spring semester, Kendrick released his album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), and Dr. Emdin embraced my suggestion that we spend a few weeks exploring the pedagogical possibilities of studying the album in classrooms. I left class week after week, processed the ideas we
discussed, and designed a unit of study that led to a reflective blog post that ultimately drew the attention of Kendrick Lamar himself and resulted in his visiting our school, an experience that Dr. Emdin helped orchestrate. On the day of Kendrick’s visit, Dr. Emdin spoke on a panel with Kendrick and provided brilliant commentary on hip-hop and education, which resonated with the entire faculty of my school, many of whom approached me for weeks and months afterwards to tell me how inspired they were by the whole experience, particularly Dr. Emdin’s ideas about urban education.
Dr. Emdin’s course had such a profound impact on me as a young teacher that my students noticed I was even more excited and energized than usual every Thursday (the day after my weekly course with Dr. Emdin). I left his class feeling valued and validated, and he affirmed my growing suspicion that I was in the presence of brilliance, and that there was no limit to what I could achieve with my students if I lived the pedagogy that Emdin preached. When Kendrick visited our school, the media chose to focus on me and our kids. Dr. Emdin humbly and graciously stood to the side and allowed me to enjoy the spotlight. He has always supported me in this unselfish way and modeled for me the kind of selflessness and generosity that I strive to practice in my relationships, both personally and professionally.
One might superficially read the title of Emdin’s newest book and think it sounds like a didactic, condescending, and generalized reproach of white teachers who are struggling to do their best in urban schools that are often unsupportive of their well-intentioned efforts. I’ll speak from personal experience again when I say that Dr. Emdin has never shamed me for my whiteness. On the contrary, he’s helped me to reflect and unpack the nuances of my privilege, always from a place of authentic love and concern for my development as a teacher, scholar, and human being. In For White Folks, he writes “the work for white folks who teach in urban schools, then, is to unpack their privileges and excavate the institutional, societal, and personal histories they bring with them when they come to the hood.”
Rather than feel threatened by his bold criticisms of white supremacy, Eurocentric schooling, and what he calls “classroom colonialism,” I feel a sense of liberation and freedom accompanied by the relief that comes when white teachers no longer feel the heavy burden of trying to adhere to the “problematic savior complex that results in making students, their varied experiences, their emotions, and the good in their communities invisible.” I have always argued that this “savior complex” actually serves to dehumanize white teachers, as well as our students. When one thinks of themselves as morally and culturally superior, what motivation exists to keep working on oneself? Our growth is stifled when we believe we’ve already “arrived.” As Maxine Greene reminds us, we are in a constant state of “becoming,” always unfinished and developing. Letting go of the “savior complex” allows us to finally engage in the fundamental and ontological task of working on our own humanity, alongside our students, not from a place of superiority, but from one of community, democracy, and solidarity. Emdin insists that when educators, “recognize that they are biased against forms of brilliance other than their own, they can finally begin to truly teach.”
For White Folks tears down the shroud that has been concealing what many white teachers have known, even subconsciously, but been too afraid to confront; that we have been complicit in the oppressive structures of schooling and that this complicity has consequently severed our ties, not only to our students and their humanity, but to ourselves as human beings in the process of becoming. In a particularly powerful passage, Emdin articulates this idea:
If a teacher has spent an entire career enacting practices that do not meet the needs of the neoindigenous, then time spent enacting these practices only serves to make the teachers experts at maintaining oppression through their teaching. If these experts are given the role of mentoring new teachers, the cycle of dysfunctional teaching for white folks who teach in the hood continues.
Perhaps the most memorable segments of Emdin’s book though come from his narrative reflections on finding ways to connect with urban youth in his early teaching career. He describes his decision to abandon late-night lesson planning sessions with a colleague in favor of pick-up basketball games with students from the neighborhood and visits to local church services, card games, and housing projects. In a similar conversation with Dr. Emdin a few years ago, he encouraged a group of graduate students at Teachers College to “walk around in the neighborhood where you teach on a Sunday, when people are out.” This simple suggestion resonated with me so much that I began walking around Jersey City one afternoon, embracing the sights and sounds of the neighborhood in which many of my students live. Although I didn’t see any of my students that day, the experience encouraged me to invest more deeply in their out-of-school lives.
Several months later, I invited a few of my students to join me at a local poetry slam at a cafe in downtown Jersey City. When the first student walked in and saw me at small table eating tacos and sipping a soda he replied, “whoa, it’s weird seeing you here.” I remember thinking, “I know I’m you’re teacher, but I’m a human being, too! I have to eat and have fun and exist in capacities other than my institutionally sanctioned role as your teacher!” Our experience together that night, though, spoke for itself. We laughed, told jokes, broke bread together, and witnessed powerful local poets perform in a venue that was on my students turf, not mine. Emdin suggests that “teaching more effectively requires embedding oneself into the contexts where the students are from, and developing weak ties with the community that will organically impact the classroom.” My relationship with students changed after that, as we began to see each other as human beings who exist outside of school, much in the same way that overnight field trips can create bonds between students and teachers who are existing in more humanized and intimate roles, even if temporarily.
Although I’ve embraced many of the strategies and approaches that Dr. Emdin suggests, I’ve still felt a nagging sense of insecurity about how my classroom looks and functions. When older, traditional, and more experienced teachers and administrators walk by my classroom and peer inside with a look of astonishment as students nod their head to the unmistakable sound of hip-hop, I’m often dismayed when those teachers will no longer associate with me simply because of a superficial judgement about what effective teaching and learning is supposed to look like. These judgements are not simply technical, methodological, and pedagogical. These are moral judgements about my character.
In a recent lesson on Hamilton: The Musical, students were literally jumping out of their chairs, singing rap lyrics about dueling in the 18th century, and then ferociously debating one another about whether or not Hamilton’s death was a result of manhood in a hyper-masculine society. On the surface, the classroom looked and sounded completely chaotic. It was loud, unorganized, confrontational, and spontaneous. It was the opposite of the industrial model of education that has perpetuated rote learning, obedience, students sitting in rows, and bells that structure the day neatly. This industrial model is an outdated one of obsessive power and control. Emdin encourages teachers to (in a sense) lose control of their classrooms:
This requires an understanding that when students are keyed in to the instruction and have a personal investment in learning, the teacher will “lose control” of the class. It necessitates an acceptance that students will speak in nontraditional ways that may include slang and/ or expressions that are not traditionally accepted in schools. Therefore, the very notion of controlling the class has to be dismissed. The optimal teaching context for content to be ideally delivered is one where the students are so excited about learning the content that their responses to the teaching are visceral and cannot be controlled or quantified. Furthermore, in a classroom where there is collective effervescence, the exchange of information will be so fluid that the students are bringing their full selves (which include their neoindigenous language and expressions) to the classroom. When this happens, the exchanges between students and the teacher keep elevating until a point is reached where the teacher will not know the answers to students’ questions.
For how many teachers will this validate their practice of engaging urban youth in really
powerful learning? And for how many teachers will this conjure up deeply internalized insecurities about the controlling environments they have created and maintained in their classrooms for many years? I
believe these are healthy conflicts that we should confront and reflect upon. It means humbling ourselves to the very nature of learning, understanding that true knowledge cannot be predicted, controlled, or defined. When exchanges with students elevate to a point where teachers don’t have the answers, we should celebrate that unknowing, rather than be intimidated by the the fact that we have several degrees and don’t know the answer. We may be the “masters” of our content area, but we are not the “masters” of the children in our classrooms. We should be learning, growing, developing, and questioning life’s most profound questions alongside them, living with the ambiguity that results, and engaging honestly with ourselves as much as possible.
I read For White Folks less as an indictment of white teachers and more as a love letter to them, from someone who genuinely cares about students and teachers. And like Emdin reminds us, “you cannot teach someone you do not believe in.”