The following are my takes from Chapter 1 of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin.

Chapter 1 is called Camaraderie: Reality and the Neoindigenous  and lays the groundwork for the book.  It goes right in on what our school knows as Habit of Work 1: I come to class ready to learn. Renaissance assigns 20% of a student’s grade to four Habits of Work, which are akin to an effort grade. Emdin wonders how students even perceive HoW 1, and if how teachers perception of “ready to learn” might be really different from many of our students’. He wonders if we make many of our students invisible by not seeing that even if they do not fit into a narrowly defined “readiness”, that many students do come to class “ready” in some manner. He notes that we “privilege people who look and act like us, and perceive those who don’t as different and, frequently, inferior.”

The question of what “ready to learn” means is a tiny piece of a larger subject: how in touch with students are teachers who are different from their students in terms of race and class? How much do we value the communities in which our students live? How well do we understand the communities, especially if we do not live there?

Emdin notes that “to be in touch with the community, one has to enter the physical places where the students live, and work to be invited into the emotional-laden spaces the youth inhabit.” He notes that many students feel an alienation from the norms of school, and that many students who live in poverty experience many of the emotional challenges associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When students come to school, Emdin believes that students are expected to leave their day-to-day experiences and emotions at the door in order to assimilate into the school culture, a process that Emdin calls personal repression.

The challenge is this:

  • How do we truly see our students, recognize their experiences, and acknowledge the fact that where students live impacts their outlook?
  • How do we better connect the world that students spend most of their time in (their neighborhood, their home) with the school?

Emdin plans to use a framework called neoindigeneity to help teachers learn how to “attend the relationship between place and space.” This means looking at how youth become disaffected by the educational institutions designed to serve them.

How do we create safe and trusting relationships with urban youth of color? Emdin discusses Reality Pedagogy, in which space is made to hear from youth about “how and where teaching and learning practices have wounded them” to help students and teachers have discourse about where students are academically but also emotionally and psychologically. Honoring each student’s unique perspective on school and not having assumptions about students—giving each student a voice to shape the narrative of their educational experience is the point of this. Giving teachers space also to unpack their own expectations and preconceptions is a part of this approach.

Cultural Reflections on Urban Ed

Cultural Reflections on Urban Ed

Two new books out about teaching highlight the challenges and opportunities around urban education. One, called The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School documents how its author, Ed Boland, a former administrator at an educational access program, crashed and burned as a first year teacher. Nicole Dixon, herself a NYC public school teacher since 2009, notes in her review that the book is rather stereotypical of the urban school genre—it glorifies the many challenges that urban students face as well as their challenging behaviors. In doing so, the book misses a number of important story lines that also occur in urban schools, but are often ignored by mainstream media.

First, teaching anywhere is quite challenging. I remember my first year teacher as a science teacher.  I was a scientist, and so I figured it would be easy to teach science. I had no teacher training and had not been in a classroom in over twenty years. My first lesson plan, which I prepared five minutes before students arrived, was not even a lesson—I simply wrote on the board that students were to read the first 50 pages of their text book and answer any questions they encountered.

My utter lack of experience made for a very long year for both the students and myself, and I left teaching during my second year to take a job administering a grant. However, unlike Mr. Boland, I went back into teaching and now am an award-winning teacher. Even with several awards under my belt, I am still growing as a teacher. Teaching is a challenging craft, yet urban districts often end up hiring the teachers who are least prepared to teach. Many do not last very long. They either make all their mistakes in the urban district and then take their hard-won experience to a district with more resources, or they leave teaching entirely. However, it is important to note that most urban schools have some stalwarts that hang in there year after year and who positively impact students’ lives.

And what lives these are! Another storyline that Ed Boland misses is a crucial one—students in urban schools can and do learn. They can think critically, and they can create masterfully written essays, stories, poems, and lab reports. They can impact their societies through civic engagement, perform wonders on the stage, and they can do all of this even as they have less resources and more struggles at home and in their schools.  How easy it is to write the story line that thugs (Boland’s favorite word) are, well, thugs. But in a society that still struggles to value all of the members of our society, I feel like Boland does a tremendous disservice. His complete lack of preparation for what he is getting into should not be confused with his students’ capacity for beautiful work.

Another book is coming out in March, and I am much more excited about it. It is called For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. His storyline is so much different from Ed Boland’s. In an NPR interview, Emdin, who has been honored by the White House for his leadership in urban education, believes that “once students are able to incorporate the arts and their culture into the science content, they take it and they run with [it].”

I am excited about this book. Over the past year, our school staff has been having a rich and deep conversation around what it means to be part of a mostly white staff in a school where the students are mostly not white. For myself, these conversations have made me step back and wonder how I could teach in a more culturally responsive manner.  How can I take my teaching to the next level? Unlike Mr. Boland, I surely do not feel like my students are unteachable.

And yet, I sense there is something missing from my classroom. Mr. Emdin’s book will offers strategies to make my classroom more of a community than it already is. Grounded in theory, the ideas aims to show how culturally relevant strategies like hip-hop music and call-and-response, as well as connecting the experiences of urban youth to indigenous populations globally, can lead to a transformative experience for urban youth.  Culturally sensitive teaching is my next goal as I continue to polish my craft as a teacher—in urban ed. My students deserve nothing less.


Articulation is a key skill that students should have, many do not; subsequently, while they are often able to do the skills I teach in class and for homework, often there is no evidence of deeper learning weeks later. Too often, the skills are lost a few weeks later because the skill was learned superficially. As a teacher of chemistry, I know I have had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to explain topics in chemistry, and then explaining them. This articulation has led to my own deeper understanding of the subject.

I believe that this realization is one of the key “aha!” moments I will have this year as a teacher: Students need to put into their own words processes, skills, and procedures in order to truly master their material. Here are some things that came out of my debut use of this method last week. First, many students realized they did not have the vocabulary down. For this lesson, knowing what a subscript and a coefficient are enhances a student’s ability to articulate how to balance and check for balance.

Second, some students realized that they did not really understand the process for balancing equations. They did not know, but this lead to questions because suddenly they wanted to be able to articulate. What a coup for me as a teacher, that suddenly, some students felt a need to know whereas before they did not. Something about being asked to articulate, which is a higher order thinking skill, made students want to understand the material better!

Finally, asking students to articulate made some students say “I know how to balance chemical equations but I do not know how to explain it.” Something about that statement by a student made other students really question what “knowing” meant. They were skeptical of the statement that you could know something without being able to explain it.

All in all, this was one of the most fun days of teaching I have ever had. I had a hunch that my students needed something, and struck a nerve with them when I took a risk and tried something new.