For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too was written by Christopher Emdin in 2016. I learned about it over the summer of 2019, when I saw he was enlisted to speak at ACTFL. I immediately purchased his book and set to reading it. I just finished. This book is equal parts graduate-level study of pedagogy and its relation to urban education, and true tales from an urban teacher. As I much prefer fiction to non, I did proceed very slowly through this book. There are lots of good points for reflection, so I tended to only read five to ten pages at a time, then reflect and go back for another round. That makes 200-page books last a very long time.
My very favorite parts were the stories from his personal teaching experiences. He told a lot of stories that sounded so familiar, and I was surprised that he and I could have shared such similar experiences. Although, I have to admit that I finally understood (on page 197) why I was failing to connect with so many of his ideas. This is because he spoke explicitly about working with middle school, high school, and college teachers and students. No wonder I didn’t think many of his ideas would work with my kids, they are based on reflection and cognitive evaluation that six-year-olds typically cannot express sufficiently. He also gives a lot of ideas that build off special groups that meet afterschool. That is quite hard to manage when you are a traveling teacher and there is no such thing as an activity bus. So, with that bias spoken, let me share with you what I loved and why I think this is a valuable book for teachers of older students. (I’m not saying it lacks value for elementary teachers, it will just take a bit of effort to reimagine what these ideas look like with a younger group. My experience shows that there is a much wider gap in the reflective abilities of a seven-year-old and a 12-year-old than between a 12-year-old and a 22-year-old, most of which revolves around the ability to put feelings into words.)
I have to share with you my absolute favorite quote from the book, which falls on the very last page (206): “The kind of teacher you will become is directly related to the kind of teacher you associate with.” He goes on to talk about misery actively recruiting company, which I imagine all of us have seen and/or participated in at some point. But I see it in a different way, if you actively seek to push your fellow teachers to seek out the best tools for your trade and they follow you, then they will push you to do the same. He even shares stories throughout the book that expresses how he had the same experience. When we open our minds to see the potential of what things can be, then we create a safe place for those around us to do the same. I believe this is true for our coworkers as well as our students. I always tell my older students (who I test all my newest ideas on) when we are trying something new and what I hope to gain from it. If I am nervous, then I tell them what I worry might go wrong, in doing so I believe I have avoided those endings all together. When they know that I’m not always super confident about trying new things, then they know they don’t have to be either. But we still try them. And then we reflect, and then we improve (or forget) whatever it was. Either way, through our trial we have created a safer space for risk taking, and I venture that nothing is riskier in a classroom than speaking with new words about new things.
My second favorite quote (found on page 112) speaks about a potential reason for students who behave in ways that the teacher may not appreciate. He is speaking about how intelligence is perceived, and how the behavior of begin smart is commonly aligned with the behavior of the white middle-class. Thus, it can be difficult to be viewed as intelligent for students who are not well versed in those behaviors. In his words: “Rather than preform smartness, they deliberately act out an exaggerated version of what the teacher has chosen not to recognize.” I find these words so powerful, because even the youngest students do this. If a teacher fails to acknowledge a student and his/her way of knowing then they disengage, and their disengagement results in our inability to push them into a deeper understanding of the content and the world. By recognizing our own inability to know all the ways of knowing the world, we are opening up space to learn the world of the students we don’t understand.
Emdin also gives ideas for how to open the classroom to these students, who he calls neoindigenous. First, he recommends call and response, as seen in many black churches. He tells stories of watching black preachers and how they use the tone of their voice and their words to ask the congregation to follow them through the sermon, to get their permission to move forward, to build energy, and to dissipate energy. These calls and responses can easily be built into any subject, and in languages can include calls that already exist in the culture of the language (classroom teachers I teach with use, with good effect “shark bait/bruhaha” and everyone knows “class class/yes yes”). In Spanish, I have opened class with ¿Qué te pasa calabaza? / Nada Nada limonada, as a way to transition from wherever the students were before I walked in the room to being ready for Spanish. Ironically, I stopped doing this because I made it a student job, and my student would do it up to five times before sitting down and that just wasn’t what I had imagined… oops. This is a procedure I’ll be bringing back now…
He also highly believes in cogenerative dialogues, which is roughly creating a focus group for your classroom. Some students are invited to help join you in your reflective process. These students learn to reflect on the teaching practices in the classroom and help the teacher improve upon them. They can even be asked to teach lessons, after being instructed privately on the subject and presenting a well-built lesson plan. Once a cogenerative dialogue group is built, he recommends swapping out members for others in class, so that all who are interested can have an opportunity to improve their learning experience. As a spin off of cogenerative dialogues, he suggests cosmo duos, which are pairs of students who are encouraged to share with each other their triumphs and struggles in class, and then work together to celebrate or improve the situations.
His bottom line is easily understood as being invest in the students and they will invest in you. Meet them where they are, and they will show you what their reality is. You must understand their reality, or be visibly open to learning, before you can reach your fullest potential as an educator of students.