Educators must work to find better ways of building culturally relevant curriculum and reconfiguring their approach to pedagogy as they work with students, says Dr. Christopher Emdin, an associate professor with Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
During a presentation at the school this week, Emdin cautioned that incorporating cultural insight into teaching could be problematic, particularly when educators utilize their own biased preconceptions of how they think culture can manifest in classroom instruction.
“If you’re engaging in culturally relevant pedagogy and you go on to [Teacher’s College] or wherever it is, and you understand the lingo, and then you go in there and start doing something that’s a bastardized version of the authentic culture,” Emdin said, “it’s hard for me to be able to argue with you to do something different, because you’ve got all your school learning that makes you think it’s the right thing to do.”
Emdin spoke during “Reimagining Education: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Schools,” a four-day institute conducted at the college. The second annual event was held to probe the opportunities and challenges that were inherent in “creating and sustaining racially, ethnically and socio-economically integrated schools,” and included a variety of discussions, workshops and panels with educators from across the country and world.
In addition to his role at Teachers’ College, Emdin is also the head of Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S, which integrates hip-hop music and culture into the teaching of science for students. During his presentation, Emdin spoke about his work in forming and cultivating the community of #HipHopEd, and spoke about the need for “reality pedagogy.”
“We keep remixing it and reimagining the phrasing around what we know is right to do, because before long the word that is supposed to be powerful gets to be a part of the lexicon of academia,” he said. “It starts becoming part of the language of the system, and once it becomes the language of the system, and once it becomes part of the system, it retools and re-fabricates and reimagines what’s supposed to be progressive pedagogy, and then you have a lot of folks who’ll cite you Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon who are doing damage to the lives of young people.”
Numerous speakers and participants throughout the four days of the conference held discussions on how to achieve equity pedagogy, with educators mulling how they could revamp their curriculum to facilitate students from diverse backgrounds to move forward on an equitable and effective foundation.
Pedagogy alone won't move the needle
Professor David Kirkland, the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, spoke about the need for integration in New York City schools. In a subsequent interview he said administrators and school leaders had a pivotal role to play in ensuring schools attain equity, both in the student population and in classroom approach. He noted the pressure school leaders often feel, particularly when heading vulnerable schools and districts, can lead to a “reasoned cowardice" from individuals worried about losing their jobs.
“This instability has consequences, enforcing a type of conservatism of imagination where school leaders fear risks and affirm homogeneity, because the underlying machinery that manufactures inequity in school also governs their employment,” he said. “We have evidence that school leaders are hesitant to take broad and bold actions such as affirming diversity and equity pedagogy because of a fear of failing.”
Marilyn Maye, an associate professor with New Jersey City University’s Education Leadership Faculty, spoke about the takeaways she garnered during the course of a multi-day group discussion. Many of her students are already teaching, or are seeking additional certification to become school leaders and principals. Maye said that one of the difficult aspects for administrators was to navigate the introduction of racial literacy instruction and discussion into school conversations for these graduate students.
“We believe we need an action plan because we believe inherently educators are change agents and that they cannot bring about change for their students if they haven’t experienced transformation in their own experience,” she said. “My focus is on the curriculum; how are we going to change our curriculum so that it incorporates learning materials that are transformational so people will go back differently and they can become change agents?”
Other educators spoke of preferred curriculum approaches, including A’aron B. Heard, an educator from Oakland, CA. Heard will be teaching drama in the upcoming school year and was preparing to introduce “Rise Up! An American Curriculum” to her classroom.
The curriculum was inspired by “Hamilton: An American Musical," using the play as an entry point to explore historical narratives, helping students construct their own path through the curriculum content. Like Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., the curriculum offers an alternative approach that can help complicate the fraught relationship between the educator and student that can be burdened by institutional and societal preconceptions.
The curriculum "explores Hamilton in a way that students examine themes, artistry ... and they do this in a way where they interrogate dominant narratives by disrupting them and creating their own through writing and performance,” she said.
Emdin told a story of a visit he made to a well-funded campus located in California to meet with educators who had adopted his approach. Upon seeing the group of affluent students, he said that he considered that the class had granted these students ‘freedom’ in a way is not seen in schools that operate in communities of color.
“Why are we scared to let black and brown kids be free?” he asked. “The reason we’re scared is we have perceptions of what happens when they get free. We have perceptions about what their freedom looks like vs. somebody else’s, and if you’re scared of letting someone be free you can’t teach them nothing."
Kirkland said that despite institutional pressures, it is within the power of administrators to assist, rather than hinder, educators working to instill equity pedagogy in the classroom. He pointed to principals who choose not to utilize suspensions as the main method of discipline, but work with educators and students on restorative justice practices.
“I’ve seen school leaders encourage teachers to adopt practices such as meditation and mindfulness in ways that reimagine teaching and learning,” he said. “Here, the administrator is less the flame than the spark. Without the spark, there would be no flame."