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For white folks who teach in the hood

The B-Boy stance refers specifically to the official pose of the breakdancer; broadly, it’s the position and perspective of urban youth.

Either way, it isn’t a stance valued as a critical point of view in academe or teacher education programs.

That may change on March 22, with the release of Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

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The Teachers College, Columbia University, associate professor and principal of the #HipHopEd movement offers a soulfully analytic sit-down for students of teacher education programs and professional teachers working in schools.

The timing is right; if current trends hold, the percentage of teachers of color will fall to an all-time low of 5 percent of the total teacher workforce by 2020.The percentage of public school students of color currently exceeds 50 percent. Any strategy to improve urban education must include a plan to teach white teachers.

Emdin’s book is also timely because it reminds us that our absence in the teacher ranks shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of potential teachers of color. Black and brown knowledge, thinking, teaching, learning and scholarship are rejected by frameworks that chronically devalue black and brown lives.

The institutional discouragement from teaching is built with the bricks of suspension and expulsion, standardized testing, mass firings, devalued scholarship and denied tenure promotions.

The black lives matter movement naturally gives birth to scholarship that unapologetically seeks justice while teaching white folk.

I first met Emdin a few years after Hurricane Katrina as part of an empowerment tour that made a stop at Loyola University New Orleans. Since then, we’ve developed a strong personal and professional relationship that allows us to critique each other’s work.

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The book’s title isn’t provocative to Emdin and others involved in urban education. You can’t help but feel the influence of Gloria Ladson-Billings’ work on culturally relevant pedagogy. However, Emdin takes the baton in this intergenerational effort to prepare teachers to teach black children. His relay leg accentuates the obvious: hip-hop is sorely missing from academe and teacher preparation programs.

Academe – especially campus life at elite four-year institutions – is a unique island in which its dominant culture dictates the terms of one’s stay by demanding adherence to its unique vernacular, hierarchies and traditions.

Graduation and tenure are as much signs that one has demonstrated loyalty to a Eurocentric culture as of the mastering of academic standards, which are also white.

For white folks who teach in the hood
Christopher Emdin, associate professor, Teachers College, Columbia University, and associate director of the school’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education; 2015 Multicultural Educator of the Year by the National Association of Multicultural Educators; White House STEM Access Champion of Change honoree. Credit: Ryan Lash

Through the deployment of teachers in primary and secondary schools, traditional and “reformed” teacher prep programs create ambassadors who insidiously reinforce standards and attitudes that have always had a negative view of anyone not white and male.

Properly, Emdin’s book begins with Lessons from the Sioux in which he connects Indigenous Americans’ traditions to his own experiences as a youth growing up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He offers a historical analysis of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s militaristic approach to “educate the Indian,” scrubbing people of their supposed primitive culture and identity. “The teachers who were recruited to the Carlisle School were in many ways like the white teachers who teach in the hood today,” the author surmises.

Through For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, the B-Boy in Emdin flexes as a customary Ivy League professor. You certainly get a dose of “academese,” e.g., “Connecting the Indigenous and the Neoindigenous.” An aside: Academics love putting “neo” and “post” in front of words. But the use of jargon in For White Folks never strays too far from the book’s accomplishment of using personal experiences to show how black and brown cultures can guide white teachers who teach in the hood.

As a teacher, Emdin writes, he was advised to “erase” his blackness and “render significant pieces of who I was invisible.”

This is where “…and the Rest of Y’all Too” part of the title comes into play. Hip-hop heads’ potential contributions to the teaching profession are being trained out of them.

When Emdin embraced the cultural MC (to move the crowd) within, he harnessed the “ability to guide without controlling, to create the best context, to be flexible,” and “make the crowd move.” Emdin became a better science teacher when he became less white and more hip-hop. Emdin doesn’t use hip-hop references as metaphor; instead, he validates students’ lives and his own by incorporating hip-hop folk’s customs and ethos into teaching practice.

In hip-hop, a cypher is a sacred space in which rappers freestyle (rap extemporaneously) to test the skills of those within it. The cypher has rules that encourage participation, growth, style and critical thinking. It’s an advanced classroom that doesn’t recreate the traditional teacher prep hierarchies that force participants to render parts of themselves invisible.

Classroom “management” in the cypher requires a different mindset that moves away from conventional practices of control.

Emdin elevates the cypher as an element of teaching. He takes you through the ins and outs of its power. Consequently, this book can’t be dismissed as a polemic of white teachers.

It also can’t be reduced to a love-letter on hip-hop or hip-hop education (nothing wrong with those). As a trained scientist, science educator and rapper (dude got skills), Emdin provides real strategies that teachers across subject and grade levels can use.

Emdin gets real (pragmatic) and speaks clearly on how to improve instruction by incorporating things like church culture, media arts or community values.

Emdin’s firm footed B-Boy stance challenges the foundation of teacher preparation programs. For White Folks ultimately teaches the unlearned lesson that a hip-hop people’s critical perspective must matter in order for authentic teaching and learning to take place, but more importantly the book offers a bigger case for colleges to make room for other hip-hop scholars.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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