Humanity First – Chris Emdin on Reality Pedagogy and a Lot More

What’s the point of education? We have millions of teachers and students in our schools all across the country spending innumerable hours in classes year after year. So what’s the point?

Well, if you believe Dr. Chris Emdin, (and after hearing him speak, reading his book, and then spending a day with him I am inclined to do so) the point is healing. We embark on this moral endeavor in order to heal people.

Healing? Wait a minute! That’s not what the brochure said this was about.

The written description for the session was the Emdin would cover his 7 C’s of Reality Pedagogy that he describes in his book, but instead he opened his soul and shared the fire that keeps him motivated and hungry.

Summarizing a 6 hour intensive session into a single post is a pointless task. (And at the rate this man speaks? Forget it. I won’t even pretend to try that.) If you want to know what Emdin talked about I’ll bend your ear as long as you’ll let me. I promise. For this purpose though I’m going to give you the same-day snapshot on what I want to do next with the three areas that are currently sticking out. By the time I get home in three days I might be sitting with something completely different.

Healing:
The goal of teaching is to heal. Broken people break people.”

As soon as the first hour of the day Emdin shifted away from the advertised topics into a concept of humanizing pedagogy (pulling directly from Ladson-Billings, Freire, and Giroux) that allows students to be fully themselves while also pushing them toward excellent outcomes and in doing this he dropped the massive claim that “the goal of teaching is to heal [and] broken people break people.” The room sat up a bit straighter with a “what did he just say about me?” look on their face.

Emdin did not say this to indict teachers – he was speaking to a room full of mentors and coaches. Instead, he positioned the coaching role as a parallel healing role with teachers. If we want teachers to be healers in the classroom we need coaches in place to heal the adults. Broken teachers will break students. Broken principals break teachers. Broken parents break children. We see it all the time and we can change that.

Emdin’s fire comes with a large serving of truth.

This made me want to take a more direct role in supporting our novice teachers. I want to help heal some people. I’ve done it before as a mentor and it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever been a part of.

As a district level administrator I’m a few steps removed from teachers, let alone students, yet I run the mentoring and induction program for the district. I’m also working on building a case for more robust support of our novice teachers. After today I am thinking that I should take on a couple of novice teachers and mentor them directly in the way I would want mentors to work. This would let me lead by example and create a concrete example for our senior leadership to work with. Just like modeling instruction as a coach. If  I can make this work it would let me film myself and my coaching to further make the case while also making more direct impact on our educators.

I definitely have space in my schedule to take on a couple of teachers and it shouldn’t be too hard for me to identify a couple people who would be willing to get some additional support so that I can demonstrate how effective mentors can support the individual person in their role as a teacher and move a novice teacher toward a healing role. All with explicit district support given my level of formal authority.

Call Their Name:
[By writing graffiti] “kids risk their lives to get their name called. So call their name.”

Emdin repeatedly touched on ideas of humanizing and recognizing youth as valid and worthy naming that most explicitly in the quote above. There’s a brutal simplicity in the idea that young people will climb buildings and hang off bridges, literally risking their lives, in order to write a name, a name of their choosing, in a public space. The need to affirm identity is literally being written in bright six foot high letters. What if we provided that affirmation in schools?

Emdin told the Decepticons’ origin story as a group of Brooklyn Tech High School students who were unable to actualize their identities at the prestigious exam school. This can be read as a cautionary tale for everyone who might read Emdin’s book and think “well, I don’t teach in the hood, so I’m all set.” The story about the Deceptz builds a sense of urgency, not from the fear that any group of educationally disenfranchised youth of color will spontaneously start a violent gang, (New York in the late 1970’s has a very important historical context after all) but more that the rise of the Deceptz highlights the need to shine a light into the underperforming areas of apparently successful schools. We can’t neglect small populations of unsuccessful or disenfranchised students just because their small numbers have a small impact on our aggregate ratings.

I don’t know yet what this means for my day to day work, but we need to make sure our students can affirm their identities while working to achieve at high levels in school. If schools are working correctly students shouldn’t need to look outside the school to be their authentic selves. There’s a long way to go here, particularly for students of color.

For me to help make this happen it could mean working on curriculum, running classes for teachers, supporting evaluators, or all of the above.

False Choice:
“What are you willing to give up in order to save lives?”

Emdin posed this question fairly early in the day and then proceeded to reject its premise. The initial premise is the idea that a teacher gives up time working on academic content (the curriculum) when they take time to learn about students’ identities or engage students through shared social capital. He (and I) rejected that premise from the perspective that without engaging with students at a human level and understanding them as fully formed humans (with ever evolving brains, souls, and identities) we will never actually teach them. There’s a lot of work to be done here within school systems.

In my work I can typically get educators to agree with the idea that they need to spend time getting to know their students or building community. Those educators will often mention taking time at the beginning of the year. Maybe a couple days, perhaps as long as two weeks. That’s not enough.

The beginning of the year is important – it’s critical, but it’s insufficient. Students change over the course of ten months, sometimes in very dramatic ways and teachers need to create routines and rituals that allow students to consistently and reliability check in. It could be a simple as an identity based Do-Now (entry task, warm-up, take your pick of terms) activity, or as complex as asking students to journal and turn journals into formal writing. Length and depth are less important than consistency and repeated opportunity for students to positively leverage their many identities. Again, I tend not to have problems convincing people that this is a good idea. The challenge comes from implementation.

The classic tension is that teachers have “so much content to cover” and this mentality can prevent teachers from doing the community and connection building work that they know is critical to ensuring student success. This is where I think we need to change the common perception of teaching. Paulo Freire stated that “there is no teaching without learning” and that is where I want to get every teacher. With this perspective the claim that “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it” can’t exist. It becomes an impossibility. Instead you have to take the perspective that no matter how many times I’ve said it, or presented it, or asked students to learn a concept – if they haven’t learned it, my work isn’t done. If a concept or topic isn’t important enough to go back to, perhaps it shouldn’t be there in the first place.

This then forces an examination of content and methodology. You can’t teach every topic on the curriculum at the necessary depth. I have never seen an attainable syllabus. (Including ones I’ve written.) Therefore we need to attempt to teach less and think critically about which concepts are worthy of teaching with depth and which topics can be merely presented to students for exposure. I want to help our teachers and curriculum coordinators figure out how to make this happen. We need our students to be with us and mountains of research show that we only get quality learning when students trust that teachers understand and respect them. This takes time and it takes work. We need to make it acceptable to take the necessary time. We’ll never get students learning otherwise.

What’s Next?
There was so much more and I have so many questions about where to go next.

Emdin took the whole room to church for six hours talking about the power of Pentecostal preachers to enrapture and audience while living as an example of that very same power. I expect that I will be unpacking, rethinking, and applying what I learned for quite some time.

Throughout the day Emdin helped me take ideas and concepts that have been floating in my head and in my practice and put those ideas into words. His declaration of teaching as a healing act aligns directly with that I knew to be true about the best teaching, but struggled to articulate. He lives Freire’s concept of a humanizing pedagogy, but leverages a vernacular that is much more accessible than Freire.

In his accessibility Emdin is also explicit in naming how to accomplish these lofty tasks. He makes it sound so easy – because it is. You’re trying to make content relevant to your students, but you don’t know what their culture is like? Play dumb, ask them. They’ll tell you. We just have to get over our own fears and hangups and remember that we’re here for students’ lives. The stakes are high and our comfort as adults isn’t a good enough reason to not try. If we’re ever going to turn education into the system we all say we want we have to actually find the courage to take the actions we know to be effective. This day took me many steps closer and I look forward to the challenge.

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