Tim Talks With Chris Emdin

In these Tim Talks, Carnegie President Tim Knowles engages “friends, allies, and conspirators” in micro-conversations about education, equity, and the future of learning.

Dr. Christopher Emdin is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Teachers College, Columbia University where he also serves as Director of Science Education at the Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education. He is also the author and editor of several books, including For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (2016), Between the World and the Urban Classroom (2017), and Ratchetdemic (2021).

In this micro-conversation with Tim Knowles, Chris discusses what it means to be in this “moment where the opportunities of equity are everywhere.” Building upon his own experience as an uninspired student, he says, “I’m driven today by the notion that I can work with schools to reimagine what education feels like for kids like me who didn’t want any parts of it.” From this context, he imagined “reality pedagogy” in which teachers must have an understanding of the realities and experiences of their students inside and outside the classroom. He says, “One of my favorite sayings is that education is a localized enterprise.”

Chris goes on to riff on the self-reflection White teachers should undertake when teaching students of color, the impact of poverty on the imagination, the role of “freestyleability” and “ratchetdemics” in the classroom, and how teaching is performance art.


Tim Knowles (TK): So, I’m gonna just say this, Chris. Welcome to Tim Talks. This is the wayward sibling of Ted Talks. No bling, no bling at all, all content. And it’s a huge—

Chris Emdin (CE): And that means I wore the hat for no reason.

(TK): Oh, a little bling.

(CE): Added bling with the hat.

(TK): We can have a little bit of bling. A little can fit.

(CE): Okay. Alright.

(TK): But it’s a huge pleasure that you said yes to be here with me. And for those people out there in the universe that don’t know Dr. Chris Emdin, he is a professor at Columbia Teachers College. He is an inspiration, a conspirator, an innovator. He is an author. He wrote, “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation,” a New York Times bestseller is what my sources tell me. He wrote, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy for Urban Education” 2017. And he wrote “HipHopEd” and a forthcoming book, which I can’t even say the title, I think it’s “Ratchetdemic,” and you’re going to have to maybe tell us something about Ratchetdemic, which is—

(CE): Well, you got it right, though. You said it just right.

(TK): So, all right, Chris. I want to just start with a question that you don’t know I’m going to ask, which is, what is your backstory? Tell us a little bit about Chris.

(CE): Yeah. I’m Chris Emdin. Was born, actually, believe it or not, in Tacoma Park, Maryland, but grew up in New York City. Grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. As a child growing up I wanted to be everything but a teacher, or a professor, or an academic. I’m like, “Find a job that’s not that, that’s what I want to do.”

(TK): What happened? What happened?

(CE): Yet, here I am. Right? And you know, the question of what happened is really important, I think. I think I found myself married to education, and teaching, and schools because of the horrible experience I had in schools. And not to say it was all terrible. I had some amazing teachers, but on a whole scale I really didn’t see myself in school. I didn’t find myself in school. I wasn’t inspired in school, and that’s why I shunned anything that had to do with education for a very long time. And that’s what drove me back to it, because I’m driven today by the notion that I can work with schools to reimagine what education feels like for kids like me who didn’t want any parts of it. And so I think being separated from school my whole life is what drives me to want to change schools now.

I'm driven today by the notion that I can work with schools to reimagine what education feels like for kids like me who didn't want any parts of it.

(TK): I think you know this. We share a common friend, and this common friend just joined the board of the Carnegie Foundation, and that is Yo-Yo Ma. And he in the course of, I think it was my inaugural Tim Talk, he quoted you, and he said that you said to him that teaching is performance art and students are works of art, and he dropped that into our talk and I was mesmerized. I was, there was this sort of long Yo-Yo Ma pause. So for our practitioner partners in doing the work, what is it, what does that mean in the classroom? What does it mean to say teaching is performance art and students are works of art?

(CE): I want to open up the response to that question by saying that when you see Yo-Yo Ma on a stage the way that he has a command of his instrument, the way he has everyone sitting in rapt attention, waiting to see what he does, that even when it’s a number he’s playing that we all know, there’s something he does to it that makes you say, “Wow, that was special.” It’s teaching. Right?

And so when I say teaching is a performance art, it is that there is a technicality to teaching. There is a “science” to teaching. There is a set of things you must know and how to do it well. But when you are in that classroom with young people, it’s a performance. You’re at one with the curriculum and with the lesson plan and with the standard and with the rubric and the assessment and with the young people. All of it is all coming together at once, and you’re making music out of these things that may not make sense together. And you’re doing it in a way where young folks are so drawn to you that they can draw power out of the content.

And so teaching to me is about when a teacher reaches that point where they understand the performance in their craft and can connect all the technical knowledge with that soul knowledge, with that—the merging of the intuitional with the institutional, it’s at that point that you begin to teach. And I think that you can teach teachers how to make that magic, but it first must come with a recognition that teaching is a performance art and that we should hold it in the same esteem that we hold the performances that capture our imaginations in a way that we know that there’s something special about that.

We should hold teaching to that same high esteem. So teaching is a performance art. I also mean in this concept that it’s not just like you’re performing for the students, but you’re performing with the students that it’s the ultimate grand rehearsal before real life, right? That you and those young people are capturing moments and you’re rehearsing ideas, and lines, and words, and theories, and content so that when they are unleashed on the world, they are performing at their best, right?

So it’s teaching as a performance art, teacher with young people. It’s also young people with teacher in preparation for the stage that is the real world. So that’s teaching as a performance art.

Now, young folks as works of art is something that came to me and that I described because I work in science education, but also deeply at arts education. I feel like arts education is the final frontier of good teaching and learning, and that all teachers need to learn how to be artists.

But I also recognize that we, in arts education in particular, we’re teaching young folks how to appreciate art. You know, we’re teaching young folks how to engage in an art, but they are works of art. Every young person that comes into a classroom is a cacophony and mix of a bevy of experiences, and traditions, and cultures, and knowledges, and they come to you as this rich, powerful work of art. And if you view them as works of art, there’s a certain reverence you have to have for them. You know?

There’s a certain respect and admiration for this thing. And even if you don’t understand it, if you see it as art you must engage in a relationship with it that helps you make meaning of it. And I think that if you view young folks as works of art, and we view teaching as a performance art, the way we engage in the discipline of teaching, it just has to be different.

Teaching to me is about when a teacher reaches that point where they understand the performance in their craft and can connect all the technical knowledge with that soul knowledge, with that—the merging of the intuitional with the institutional, it's at that point that you begin to teach.

(TK): So all right, I’m gonna switch gears, though. I think your 400th book that you wrote was called, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too.” What should white folks, this is a big question, but you’re going to answer it in a pithy way, what should white folks who teach in the neighborhood know? And maybe a second order question is, what is the reality pedagogy that you’re talking about?

(CE): Yeah, that’s a great question. The first thing I would say to white folks who teach in the hood, what’s essential for them to know is that your whiteness is not an impediment to your effectiveness. A lot of folks just think, “Is it ’cause I’m white, I’m gonna struggle,” and you enter into the work sort of magnifying your whiteness and how it’s going to be an interruption to your effectiveness, and it’s not. I mean, white folks who attach themselves to white supremacist ideologies about young people and about curriculum, that’s a problem. Whiteness on its own is not bad, you know and so, that’s the first thing I’d say.

The second thing I’d say is we don’t save young people. We don’t. We don’t give them a leg up. We don’t provide to them something to make them better. They are good as they are. They are excellent as they are. They are gifted as they are, and the things that society has deposited into our consciousness about urban America, about black and brown young people, are oftentimes far from the truth. And if you enter into the classroom with these conceptions about these young folks that are problematic, that inhibits your ability to be effective, and that connects to reality pedagogy, which is just, it’s about understanding the realities of the experiences of the learner.

A lot of folks love culturally relevant pedagogy. I’m a fan as well. Culturally sustaining pedagogy, all these iterations of that concept of seeing culture, but if your perception of culture is based on preconceptions on culture and you’re working to be relevant to your conceptions of culture, then that will be ineffective. But if you’re perpetually in pursuit of making sense of the realities of young folks’ experiences, how is that kid’s reality being played out in the classroom right now? How is their every day, this morning, last night?

You know, I think it moves us away from these broad ideas of culture that may be prescribed into, I want to get to know who I have in front of me. One of my favorite sayings, education is a localized enterprise. You get it wrong if you hyper-standardize.

We don't save young people. We don't give them a leg up. We don't provide to them something to make them better. They are good as they are. They are excellent as they are. They are gifted as they are.

(TK): So when I was in Chicago, there were two things that I think were two of the most powerful things pedagogically that I was involved with. One was in a middle school on the South Side that we said to the teachers, “We want to teach, we want you to teach what you’re passionate about. We don’t care what it is. We really don’t care.” So all kinds of stuff started happening. It was crochet, ice skating, bicycle riding. The custodian started teaching sheet rocking. There were 18 girls learning how to sheet rock in the class. And every, the kids were super engaged. That school over time became one of the highest performing middle schools in the city.

(CE): Not surprising.

(TK): And so it was a play for passion. And the second example, more recent work, we said, “What would happen if we had third graders run food trucks in Chicago?” And so we found some crazy, tattooed food truck drivers who were game and the kids designed the food, they did the marketing. They didn’t drive, but they did everything else. Everything. Again, embedded was math, was all of it, it was all there. It was writing, and thinking, and debating. and arguing. I put those two examples on the table to ask you a question about science and passion. ‘Cause I know this is sort of your sweet spot, and what do you teach teachers about how to teach science with that kind of passion? What are you doing over there, Chris?

(CE): So I know this is a conversation that’s about you asking me questions, but I have to say this. What I’ve, from knowing you and talking to you about your work, and then researching the work that you’ve done, particularly that powerful work in Chicago, what strikes me the most is how matter of fact you are about imagination, right? You’re like, “Oh yeah, we just, we just had the teachers teach what they love and did these food trucks.” Like dude, wait, like time out. You don’t just, you don’t say that and just say, “Yeah, we just did that.” That is the work.

It’s that radical imagining that you take for granted is what’s missing, and so when I teach science, that’s what I do. I try to move teachers to recognize, first and foremost, that science is not a subject. It’s not content area. It’s not facts to be memorized. It is a language that helps to activate the imagination. What’s the big deal is how an understanding of science, how scientific literacy, how a comfort with the subject, how a belief that I can do science opens up the imagination, right?

Sort of everything a young person does now gets seen through the lens of what is scientific about it. So now when I play basketball, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, those little dots on the ball actually helped my grip, that’s why my crossover is amazing. Oh my gosh, when I was braiding my sister’s hair I was looking at those right materials to make her hairs feel a little softer for the braid.” That’s scientific. It’s in the discovery of the science in the everyday, not the science is separate from.

And so people ask me all the time, “You know, you have a lot of work in education writ large why science?” Because science has been ruined. And because it’s such a powerful language that we need to reclaim that as a pathway towards activating the imagination.

It's that radical imagining that you take for granted is what's missing, and so when I teach science, that's what I do.

(TK): You’re giving me goosebumps, cause underneath this to me is agency. I mean, and I’m thinking we call that, the passion block as it were, we called it ex-block and ex-block kind of took over. It took over the whole school. The parents were like, “We’re going on excursions.” And they went to Egypt. I mean, these are South Side parents. They went to Paris and they raised the money, and they were like, we actually subscribe to the idea that if you find things you’re passionate about and you give space for kids to learn that, then the muscles are really unleashed in terms of you can get out of the way at that point. Right? You’re, yeah.

(CE): You know, here’s the thing. You know what the thing that poverty does that’s most dangerous, Tim? It’s not about—the most dangerous thing that poverty does is rob people of imagination. Right?

They think that all they have is what they see, and once, even with folks who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, you reinfuse what has been lost, which you reinfuse imagination in a way that goes beyond your socioeconomic circumstance, then when they start dreaming, the world opens up. That’s when you’re like, “Oh, let’s just go to Egypt. Let’s just go to there, let’s just open up a thing,” because poverty robbed them of imagination and good pedagogy replenishes it, right?

Good teaching is the well that activates the imagination, even when poverty deprives, robs you of it. I think poverty robs you of imagination and good teaching replenishes it.

I think poverty robs you of imagination and good teaching replenishes it.

(TK): I’m thinking a lot about equity, not just about what it means, but about how you instantiate equity post-pandemic and thinking about where are the opportunities. We know what’s been revealed, we know the challenges, we know what we had before. We know we don’t want to recreate more of it. So where do you see the opportunity post-pandemic for a more equitable educational sector to emerge?

(CE): Everywhere. And I, and this is not a hyperbole, I think that we are in this moment where the opportunities for equity are everywhere. They are in how we re-imagine assessments to be more robust, because we’ve learned now that the established assessments that we held a lot of value for actually were not that important, because in a year when we didn’t have to use them, we found other ways assess.

All of a sudden, you don’t need that SAT score to get into college, because they knew you couldn’t take the SAT. So we attached ourselves to this assessment, and now we realize it’s cool, but it’s not that needed. So I think now we have an opportunity for reimagined assessments. I think we also have this reimagined opportunity to exist at the intersection of the in-person and online as we teach. So going forward, we can reimagine what school structures look like. Maybe not everybody has to show up every day.

You know, maybe some folks are halfway on Zoom and halfway in-person. Maybe in-person classes have really strong online components. So in what we do in classrooms, I think pedagogically there’s an opportunity for really re-imagining how teachers teach in this season where they don’t want, they don’t draw only from the standards and established curriculum, but they develop the ability to be more flexible and more nimble.

One of the beauty of our conversation so far has been the nature of how nimble it’s been. Like, you open this up and say, “Chris, I’ll give you some questions. We’re not going there.” That nimbleness, you know, you’ve just got to figure it out. I think there’s an opportunity for us to train teachers for nimbleness.

One of the things I want to do in my institution where I work with is have a course on performance and what I call “freestyleability, which is toss a problem at a teacher and train them to know how to navigate those issues in situ, because that’s what real classroom teaching is like.

So I think there are opportunities for equity everywhere. I think the most important thing, though, is for us in this moment to not shy away from really being critical and reflective about the inequities that have already existed. Now a lot of folks are now talking about, “We don’t want CRT.” They’re, you know, “If it says equity it’s a problem.” I get that, and I want folks to understand we don’t engage in utilizing critical race theory, or cultural relevance, or equity for the sake of “indoctrinating your children.”

We engage in talks about equity and social justice so that we can reflect on the past and see where there were missteps to be sure that we don’t replicate those in the future. It is simply for an opportunity, because if you don’t interrupt a cycle of oppression you’re bound to be a part of it or repeat it. And so it’s about saying, “We went wrong there. Let’s know about it, let’s talk about it, so going forward we allow all young folks to be fully actualized.”

And then, last thing, opening up this space for us to be ratchetdemic, and what I mean by ratchetdemic is that we are equal parts ratchet and academics And ratchet is like lowbrow, a little loud, a little obnoxious. Your ratchet friend wears his fancy hat to the Tim Talk, right? And so it’s like you’re a little extra, but at the same time we can be academic, and thoughtful, and intellectual. And so to reimagine the landscape of teaching and learning that welcomes a little ratchetdemic.

We engage in talks about equity and social justice so that we can reflect on the past and see where there were missteps to be sure that we don't replicate those in the future.

(TK): So, I told you this was going to be micro, it’s micro. Two things. Thing one is creativity, imagination, and empathy strike me as the things that schools are actually for building. We also have a responsibility to talk about the ratchetdemic. We do. Now I do. You already did, but I now carry it. There is something in that in creating, because I think embedded in it is creating space for a different kind of learning and that’s what we need to do. We’ve been at one kind for a long time and it’s worked for a small subset, and so I’m excited about the future and excited that you would agree to join us on this—

(CE): This is bad that that we have micro-conversations, ’cause you just said a lot. It’s just tough for me. It’s tough for me to stop here, right? You said a lot, because what you said, you didn’t say this before, but what you said about creating sanctioned space with things that we’ve not done before, I think that’s the difference. Like ratchetdemics, things have existed in the world. Like, I didn’t create anything. You didn’t create anything. All we do is create space to allow these things to be accepted and validated.

(TK): Precisely.

(CE): And it’s about, it’s about that part. And that’s a whole other conversation. We should just stop now.

(TK): All right, that’s our next conversation. All right, Chris, thank you so much.

(CE): Thank you.