Understanding the communities our students are from

I (Pooja) have just returned from AERA 2016. I always leave AERA feeling inspired to continue my research and motivated to get back into the classroom. This year was no different. This year I learned about the work of Dr. Christopher Emdin, a recipient of the Early Career Award at AERA 2016. Dr. Emdin’s work considers  the relationships between Hip-Hop, urban education, and science education. Curious to learn more I about his work, I ordered his latest book entitled For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… And the Rest of Y’All Too (2016).

An article in NPR reviewing Emdin’s book highlights some of Emdin’s main arguments he makes. His arguments are completely in line with what my own research (literacy teacher educators with a critical stance) has found: in order to effectively teach, we must understand the communities from which our students come. Below is an excerpt from the article outlining Emdin’s arguments along with some examples of practice:

  1. Teachers can’t be colorblind. It does their students a disservice.

“People who perceive themselves to be colorblind often times have biases that are hidden by their colorblindness,” Emdin says. Young people in urban spaces have different linguistic and cultural realities, like the gun shots that Emdin experienced.

If teachers recognize that difference, they can help their students deal with issues such as PTSD. If the trauma of their day-to-day life goes untreated, students won’t be able to learn effectively.

But, if they heal, “then they can learn. And if they can learn, then they can be successful.”

2. Urban schools tend to be authoritarian places, which doesn’t help kids heal or learn.

If it wouldn’t be acceptable in a white, suburban school, Emdin says, it shouldn’t be acceptable in an urban classroom.

That goes for metal detectors, searches, zero tolerance policies and bars on their classroom windows. “Those things don’t happen in places where students are from a higher socioeconomic status and are not overwhelmingly black and brown.”

Emdin acknowledges that it can be hard to avoid falling into this kind of teaching. He even found himself slipping into authoritarian teaching methods, a fact which, he says, only proves that these techniques have become deeply ingrained in certain school systems.

But he says we only need to look at the statistics — college completion rates or the increased need for remedial learning — to understand that this military approach to teaching isn’t working.

3. Schools need to celebrate students and their talents, even if those talents aren’t familiar.

In his book, Emdin lays out some of the ways that teachers can rethink their classrooms without spending money.

They can create a sense of community by eating with their students, making up a school handshake and bringing in community members — including people who have not graduated from high school — as liaisons.

Emdin also suggests that teachers go to churches and barbershops, both to better understand the community and to learn teaching strategies from the people their students admire.

And teaching should not be seen as a tug-of-war between enjoyment and hard work.

Emdin, for example, folds hip-hop into the curriculum. He has worked with GZA, a rapper from the Wu-Tang Clan, to host a science hip-hop battle for New York City high school students.

“If you give young people the opportunity to be able to express their academic brilliance on their own terms, they take the initiative to study,” he says. “They take the initiative to research, and they perform and they showcase that they’re brilliant.”

Read NPR article here: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/04/10/473500018/want-to-teach-in-urban-schools-get-to-know-the-neighborhood

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