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Thinking about Context and Content with Dr. Chris Emdin

Workshop Spotlight | December 4, 2019

By Pearl Ohm, MƒA Master Teacher

Listening to Dr. Chris Emdin speak to the MƒA community felt like equal parts a TED talk, a church sermon, and a stand-up comedy routine. For the inaugural MƒA Thursday Think of the 2019-2020 school year, last month Dr. Emdin spoke on the cruciality of context when teaching content, particularly to students of color in urban STEM classrooms, spaces that have historically excluded and traumatized our most marginalized students. In an education system where the racial disparity between students and teachers can lead to a disconnect between how both understand each other, the hunger for concrete ways of bridging that gap through innovative STEM pedagogies was palpable. Dr. Emdin did not disappoint, as the night was filled with laughter at the stories he shared from his teacher days, as well as contemplative silence as he spoke of the traumatizing effects of inauthentic educators who refuse to contextualize the content.

Before one of his many “Y’all followin’ me, fam?” check ins, Dr. Emdin explored the layers of embeddedness in this work of delivering both context and content – the embeddedness of our own biases as educators, the embeddedness of our own standpoints in our curriculum, the embeddedness of the white middle class as the benchmark for what should be considered successful and good, and the embeddedness of our students’ community and culture in their lives. He posited that without deep excavation of the societal, institutional, and personal histories we hold, we are destined to bring it all into the classroom with us, perpetuating harm against our students. It is this digging to undo biases that will lead to effective teaching, he says. “Once educators recognize that they are biased against forms of brilliance other than their own, they can finally begin to truly teach.”  Emdin says this kind of cultural agnosia allows us to see the kids, but struggle to know the kids. Media narratives of poverty and violence breed the way educators devalue the funds of knowledge our students bring to the classroom; family and community funds, peer culture, pop culture, hip hop culture become erased as our students contort themselves to fit into a mold that categorizes them as “teachable” versus “those troubled kids.”  Teachers are invariably given some form of the “don’t smile until November” advice, adding to the dehumanization that erodes the relationship between themselves and the students they teach.

In a moment that felt like a perfect mix of encouragement and admonishment, Dr. Emdin argued that before any content can be delivered, “real needs to recognize real.” Bringing in ideas and themes from his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’All Too, Dr. Emdin spoke about how teachers need to come as their authentic selves and students need to be allowed to come as their authentic selves, no longer repressing their authentic selves in spaces that have traditionally not accepted them. Dr. Emdin described how educators who create safe and healing spaces for this to happen are using reality pedagogy, which is “an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goal of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf.” We heard that learning the context of our students’ lives and affirming these contexts in our classrooms is the tool to effectively deliver the content.

By sharing authority with our students, we embolden them to speak in ways not traditionally accepted in schools. In my school, when student R. Arias blurted out, “Yo, that check is mad smart.  It tells you if your answer is right or wrong. That *bleep* is lit!”, his Algebra teachers printed out his words and hung them up on the wall with the caption of “R.A.’s moment of clarity, 2014.” When H. Dominguez interrupted the practice review to yell, “Pearl, if you write something on the board that’s different than what I have on my paper, we’re gonna fight,” I registered my discomfort in that moment before saying to my class, “Let’s see if H and I are fighting today. What did we all get as a solution for the spicy question? Walk me through your work.” Emdin passionately argues that the solution for cultural agnosia is to allow and encourage students to come as they are, be accepted for their brilliance in the way they choose to show it, and be ratchetdemic, a term coined by Dr. Emdin. To be ratchetdemic is to both exemplify negative characteristics associated with urban spaces and also be academic, intellectual, and in the pursuit of new knowledge.

In a day and age where student access to cellphones opens up a world of endless knowledge, Dr. Emdin challenged us as teachers to consider our role as more than information disseminators, and to explore our responsibility to activate passion and confidence in our students. By using the context of our students’ lives, we can co-construct a space where the joy of teaching matches the joy of learning, ultimately allowing our students and ourselves to be healed. Leading and partaking in MƒA courses exhibits MƒA teachers’ response to Dr. Emdin’s call, with opportunities for each of us to reflect on shifting our educational philosophies, content curricula, and classroom pedagogies.

Pearl Ohm started her NYC teaching career as a 2005 MƒA Fellow and has continued on as a three-time MƒA Master Teacher who teaches math at Essex Street Academy, a small unscreened high school with open admissions for students from all boroughs. Pearl actively leads courses at MƒA and workshops for the New York Performance Standards Consortium with a focus on inclusive practices. She is currently the Director of NY Fellowship for Sci-Ed Innovators, a yearlong fellowship program that develops the capacity of full time NYC public school STEM teachers to integrate democratic STEM teaching principles.