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Q&A With Christopher Emdin: Putting Youths of Color First in Urban Schools

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White teachers in urban schools often participate in what educator Christopher Emdin calls a "problematic savior complex," in which these teachers are given the false sense that they are saving students of color from the deficits of their communities.

But this white-savior narrative does little to help these students in urban schools, says Emdin, an associate professor in the department of mathematics, science, and technology at Teachers College. Instead, it presumes that these students are somehow deficient and need to be saved or fixed, and it reinforces racial stereotypes that prevent teachers from seeing their students as individuals with unique emotional and cultural histories.

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I recently spoke with Emdin for Education Week Commentary's interview series with K-12 thought leaders to talk about his second book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ... and the Rest of Y'all Too (Beacon Press, 2016). The book is both a how-to guide for classroom teachers to better serve students of color and a critical analysis of the white-savior narrative in urban schools.

From hip-hop to STEM education, Emdin provides not just academic theories about how to connect with youths of color, but also classroom models for teachers to follow. Throughout his book, Emdin is committed to helping teachers become more cognizant of how the teaching strategies they've inherited can perpetuate inequality and limit black and brown students' access to learning.

In his book and in our interview, Emdin addresses the complexities of race head-on, unpacking terms like "inner-city" and "urban"—coded language that often refers to communities that are predominantly black and brown and low-income. While a number of books have been written on race in urban schools, what sets Emdin's apart is his theory of "reality pedagogy," a teaching philosophy based on "meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf."

Emdin is also the creator of the #HipHopEd social-media movement, which is for Twitter audiences interested in the intersection of hip-hop and education, and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., an initiative that uses hip-hop and rap to engage urban students in science classrooms.

"If we are truly interested," Emdin writes in his book, "in transforming schools and meeting the needs of urban youth of color who are the most disenfranchised within them, educators must create safe and trusting environments that are respectful of students' culture." Emdin's ideas bring educators one step closer to making this goal a reality.

Check out the full Q&A and listen to the audio here.

Photo: Beacon Press

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