Author Interview: Christopher Emdin, Author of 'White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ...' : NPR Ed Many teachers in urban schools don't understand their students or the places they live, says author and educator Christopher Emdin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now let's turn to education. Let's say you are a student in an urban school, or you are the parent of one, or you teach in one. Here's a scenario probably know all too well - you peek into a classroom and you see a black kid with his head on the desk or leaning back in his chair. And you say to yourself, that kid just doesn't want to be there, or that kid just doesn't care about school. Is that it, or is it something else?

Could it be that that child does not feel included or respected in that classroom and knows it? Christopher Emdin was that student and is a teacher now. And in a sometimes provocative new book, he insists that observers and participants in this scenario look harder and think differently about urban education.

His book is titled "For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood... And The Rest Of Y'all, Too." He's an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and he joined us from our New York bureau. And I started by asking him about the title of that book.

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: It is purposely provocative. And it's based on the fact that an overwhelming number of teachers in urban spaces are from different ethnic and racial backgrounds from their students, different socioeconomic backgrounds from their students, and that has a huge impact on how they teach. And so I just want to open up being really raw and blunt about that fact, and then give teachers information about how to use those differences as a way to be more effective educators.

MARTIN: Some people, just hearing the title or thinking about this conversation, would say, why does this matter? I'm colorblind, or I love these kids. And so tell me why you're basically criticizing me from the get-go by saying just because I have a different background from these kids doesn't mean I can't teach.

EMDIN: Well, you know, I feel as though folks that go into education really wear on their sleeve the fact that they are colorblind and don't care about race and they just want to do right by young people. And the reality is that young people from urban spaces are very different.

There are cultural differences. There are linguistic differences. There are just practices they engage in every day that are very different. So I would argue that colorblindness is actually a flaw because when you're colorblind, then you don't open up the space to be able to find out what it is about what they bring to the classroom that is different from who you are.

MARTIN: You know, early in the book you tell this anecdote where you're coming home from school - you're in the 10th grade - and right when you get home one day, there was a shooting right outside your apartment building.

And your mom talked to you about the fact that you can't afford to freeze up in that situation, that you've got to protect yourself. And not even a week later, you're sitting in your math class and - do you want to take the story from there?

EMDIN: Yeah. I'm sitting in a math class in a high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. A door slams shut really loudly, and my immediate response is to get on the floor and duck because my response that I was taught - when you hear a loud noise or when you hear something that sounds like a gunshot is to duck so you don't get shot.

And before I realized what had happened, before I could process it, the teacher was next to me and was telling me how I was being a clown, and why would I jump under the desk in the middle of the classroom? And it's those types of things that I want to make clear.

MARTIN: Well, not just that. Your teacher immediately orders you out to the principal's office.

EMDIN: Right, right.

MARTIN: I mean, honestly, this reminds me of experiences that I've heard returning veterans tell us when they've returned and gone back to classrooms. But in that situation, people kind of respect what they've been through.

EMDIN: I'm so glad that you mentioned that it reminds you of these narratives that we hear about, folks who come back from war, because in many ways young people in urban spaces who are being sort of reprimanded and punished for responding to their trauma and their experiences are undergoing PTSD.

And we fail to recognize that. And that's why I wrote this book, to be able to unveil this trauma and to teach teachers to help young people to heal because if they heal, then they can learn. And if they can learn, then they can be successful.

MARTIN: And how did you come to these particular insights that there's got to be - we just really have to change our thinking about this and the way we engage with students?

EMDIN: Really, the first time that struck me - you know, I graduated from undergrad with a degree in physical anthropology, biology and chemistry. I got into a master's program in natural sciences in one of the top universities in this country.

And then I looked around with other people who were in my cohort, and I was the only person who looked like me. And the question to me was always, why? And when I started teasing back why, I knew I had to go back and teach.

And then while I was teaching, I started finding myself enacting the same practices that I knew I hated when I was a student, which made me realize that teacher training and teacher preparation and the environment of a school actually fosters teachers engaging in practices that run counter to what kids need.

MARTIN: Well, you talk about this - right before you started teaching, an older teacher said, you look too much like them, they won't take you seriously. Don't smile till November. Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

EMDIN: That's exactly what I'm talking about.

MARTIN: And you're saying that in a suburban school district, that would never be tolerated. It would be more like, be caring.

EMDIN: Right, it just wouldn't be the case, right? Kids would not be lining up in hallways with their shoulders having to touch the wall. It just wouldn't happen in suburban America.

MARTIN: So what is a better way?

EMDIN: So in my view and in the book, you know, I come up with this approach called reality pedagogy, these very basic principles that don't cost a dollar, like engaging in conversations with young people about the effects of the teaching on them and having them create what the school looks like and what the school feels like.

It looks like having recording studios in a part of the classroom so the kids can use that as a form of therapy. It looks at, like, having folks who may not be high school graduates who are from the community come in to serve as community liaisons to inform how the teacher teaches and how the principal operates the school.

It looks like creating school handshakes and communities and breaking bread together. It looks like having teachers going to places like the black church and the barbershop to identify folks in those communities that mean something to young people and use them as an exemplar for how to teach better.

There are a bevy of things that I put in that book to show folks that there are tangible and practical things that you can do to be better not just as a teacher, but as a parent, as a school leader. There are answers.

MARTIN: To that end, though, I can imagine where there are some people who would say that's - OK, that's fine, but if the goal of school is to teach people the norms, the tools, the skills and the knowledge to help them succeed in a broader context, what is the point of all that?

EMDIN: We oftentimes believe that it's either or. So it's either care about kids or have them be properly educated. And it's not outside of the realm of possibility for kids to feel like they're loved, to feel like their culture is represented, and for them to be able to learn the larger skills to be successful in real life.

MARTIN: Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in mathematics, science and technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. His new book is called "For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood... And The Rest Of Y'all, Too," and he was with us today from our studios in New York, our New York bureau. Professor Emdin, thanks for speaking with us.

EMDIN: It was a pleasure to be here with you.

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