Thursday, October 6, 2016

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all Too by Christopher Emdin


The title of this book implied that it might be intended for me: a white lady who teaches in the (very gentrified) hood. The title was right! This book felt like it was written just for me at just the point in my career when I was ready to hear it. I fed myself a steady diet of Linda Darling Hammond and Lisa Delpit (who Emdin refers to as the "O.G.") when I first started teaching, but faced with the reality of standardized tests and a tyrannical principal, I didn't make room for them in my practice. Now, nine years later, I feel more prepared to take on the challenge of making my classroom a more culturally competent place, and this book was the just the right place to start my journey.

Emdin makes the case that many have made before him: our schools put white, middle class teachers (mostly women) at the helm of classrooms made up of black and brown children; they impose militaristic discipline and test and test and test students to the point where schools have become a place where students can't help but feel alienated, misunderstood, and unsuccessful. Those feelings translate into a myriad of behaviors and outcomes that trigger more militaristic discipline and the cycle deepens. Early on, Emdin quotes Adrienne Rich, who gets at the heart of the problem: "When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing." Emdin goes into depth about the many ways we are failing to acknowledge the reality and the humanity of our neoindigenous students (his word for poor black and brown students--a nod to the history of oppression that all people of color carry with them in our country), and offers some productive, specific strategies and solutions for the white folks he names in his book's title.

This book was hard for me to read. I've been teaching for a long time, and I like to think of myself as not only a good teacher, but also a good person. I consider myself open minded, progressive, and I try not be racist whenever possible. Emdin slowly and specifically pointed out many of the ways in which I still need to grow as a teacher and a person. Recognizing those areas of growth required me to acknowledge the ways in which I am not entirely the person I think I am, which is not the easiest thing to grapple with at the start of a new, tumultuous school year. I found myself pushing back a little--questioning the pedagogy behind his moves, accusing him of making excuses for students of color--but as I kept reading, those defenses fell away. His use of anecdote (I'll describe a real doozie in a moment) and clear, measured prose forced me to reconsider. Emdin makes it as easy as possible. He gives readers a road map--specific, well thought out strategies that feel productive and real and manageable (and more meaningful than just adding a black woman writer to my syllabus and calling it a day). His strategies build on each other, each one forging a stronger classroom community and laying the path for better communication and understanding.

Beyond the strategies, two pieces of the book stuck with me. In the first, Emdin describes the ways in which trauma manifests itself in our children, and, more importantly, the ways in which adults in positions of power interpret and manage those manifestations. He describes how in tenth grade, he and his sister walked into their building just as gunfire erupted outside. His sister, panicked, screams at him to hit the ground and he freezes. She ends up tackling him to the floor, but when they get upstairs his mother berates him until he understands: when you hear gunfire, you get down. Days later, someone drops a pile of textbooks in the hallway, and Emdin drops out of desk to the ground. He is, of course, chastised by his teacher and sent to the principal's office:
There was no way to describe that the trauma of my experience from the previous week was what caused me to jump under the desk in fear for my life. There was no way that the teacher or the principal could ever understand what I was feeling in that moment unless they had experienced it, and so I coolly grabbed my jacket and books, put on a smile for my friends, winked at the teacher , and walked out of the classroom. 
I think of how many moments like this I know about in my students' lives and how many I don't. How many times what I perceive as misbehavior is a reaction to something bigger, outside of both of our control. Emdin doesn't give much beyond building empathy to deal with situations like this, but just being more mindful and reflective has changed how I react to behaviors like these.

The second piece that has stuck with me is the parallel Emdin draws between our urban schools and The Carlisle School, a boarding school in the late 19th century that took Native American children away from their communities in an attempt to "help" them assimilate into white culture. The parallels between what is now widely acknowledged to be a giant, racist mistake and the system that I go to work for are terrifying, but most worrisome of all is this:
This tension between educators who saw themselves as kindhearted people who were doing right by the less fortunate, and students who struggled to maintain their culture and identity while being forced to be the type of student their teachers envisioned, played a part in the eventual recognition that the Carlisle School was a failed experiment. 
My school is a loving, caring community, and in many ways it's a great place to work and to go to school. But we still have a vision of what our students are "supposed" to be that needs to challenged and re-thought in the context of their home cultures. We have mental models about what is appropriate and what is successful that are very white and very affluent and not always applicable to the lives of our students. Charter schools and more militaristic public schools have even more troubling parallels to the Carlisle School's methods.

One of the tensions that played out in my head as this book progressed was that while these standards we've set for behavior and the benchmarks we've set for success may be racist and classist, they still are very real societal standards that my students will have to deal with once they leave school. Emdin touches somewhat on how to tackle this with students--you frame it as a game that they need to know the rules to--but I still had trouble figuring out how to both celebrate and uplift my students for who they are at their core while getting them ready to be successful in a world that isn't going to celebrate or uplift them.

Overall, this was a fantastic read. It was difficult for all the right reasons and has meaningfully changed the way I approach teaching and interacting with my students. If you too are a white person who teaches in the hood, this book is for you. And stick with it even when you bristle! You're probably wrong...

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