Today I was at the lecture by Chris Emdin, who started out as an inner-city high school teacher in NYC and is now a professor at the Columbia Teacher’s College. He told us about a group of policy makers who wanted to close the achievement gap in their city’s historically segregated schooling systems by giving iPads to the students of the struggling schools. The idea was that more screen time at school and at home would translate to higher test scores.
I use the words “historically segregated” and “struggling” intentionally. The students in question in these schools were black. But of course no one was going to talk about that. At least not directly. After all, the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter in this country. This was a poverty issue, not a race issue. And iPads were the answer.
Not surprisingly, at least to Dr. Emdin, the iPads didn’t work. The policymakers were puzzled. Ultimately, they decided that these black students (now the color of their skin was important) weren’t putting in the effort to make good use of this technology. You can only do so much for these kids after all, they said.
Dr. Emdin invited us to think more about what black students were seeing on these iPads. The answer: the same, unchanged message that was in the textbooks. One promoting white histories, white values, white culture. One of our classmates “Larssont” posted an article about how, as late as the 1970′s, the government encouraged housing segregation in cities and shamelessly denied to black unions the wealth needed to move out into the suburbs like whites. (Read about it here: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/03/26/26rothstein_ep.h33.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW) As the author points out, there is hardly a sentence in most modern history textbooks about this kind of post-MLK segregation. Other things are missing from our schools’ version of history too. Black scientists for example. Who even today, asked Chris, can name one other black scientist besides George Washington Carver? Or how about one of the many prominent black scientists who are currently active? Not to be found, in print or on iPads. As they say, the winners write history, and the role of blacks is small and contained. It comes up where it’s supposed to come up.
Dr. Emdin himself is personally invested in bringing hip-hop into the science curriculum by hosting inter-scholastic rap battles on science topics. Even for teachers who are as white as rice (my term, not his; and the statistical fact is that most teachers are)…especially for these teachers, he talked about how a respectable figure from “the hood” (his term now) could serve as a cultural broker between academics and their lived life.
For instance, one day Chris saw that his students weren’t getting the concept of how a marble ball will roll forever across a frictionless surface until it hits another ball, at which point that ball will begin to roll forever. The kids’ faces were blank. The community member in residence, however, was able to explain to the kids, in language that I cannot begin to imitate, even in print: “You know when you’re riding the blue line and it stops all of a sudden but you keep going? It’s like if that were to happen forever.” Suddenly heads were nodding. Whether we’re comfortable to admit it or not, skin color is important in many places. It’s a culture, it’s a language, and I personally know I’m far from fluent.
Coming back to these science rap battles, Chris notes how he has seen a community member lend Walter White some credence in teaching students how to use science terminology in Hip-Hop rhymes; at the same time, the community member is learning about science, which many adults from “the hood” learned only to hate in school. All the while, the co-teachers are instilling in these teenagers a personal and cultural pride in science and the power of a curious mind at work. “Harriet Tubman,” Chris tells us, “was a brilliant scientist. She used her understanding of astronomy to guide her fellow slaves toward the free states.” Can you imagine the power in teaching kids that science is part of their collective story too? If you are curious about Dr. Emdin’s work, here is an article about him in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/nyregion/columbia-professor-and-gza-aim-to-help-teach-science-through-hip-hop.html?_r=0
Engaging students in this way, as opposed to merely tossing around money, requires people to breaking the long-held silence between our inner-city schools and the communities of which they are a part. Unfortunately, it seems that few educators today are truly willing to do this. David Foster Wallace, a favorite author of mine, once said “The truth will set you free. But not until it’s finished with you.” True change requires sacrifice and stepping into new territory with an open minds. Humans as a species, however, can be pretty bad at change.
No doubt, many teachers are under pressure from their administrators to only teach certain things in certain ways; we know that our obsession with standardization in this day and age is only getting worse. Others, meanwhile, may genuinely think that more screens and money will solve the problem of racial inequity in our schools. But I fear that there is a bigger culprit that nobody wants to admit or even discuss: Cowardice. Being too afraid to change the status quo even when it’s possible. Even when you know you absolutely should.
Personally, I really hope that I am not/do not become a coward. This is my greatest fear as an aspiring teacher. If I’m teaching at a 99% white school, then so be it. That’s my comfort zone, what I grew up with. But if I’m at a school where I have to grapple with cultures greatly different from my own, I hope that I will have the courage to say what isn’t being said and to challenge my students do the same. The fear of being silent when I know deep down that I should speak, in all seriousness, keeps me up at night.
I don’t think that these two gents Simon and Garfunkel spent much time in “the hood,” but I do know that their song The Sound of Silence understands the terrible power of silence and how it divides us as people. Teaching sure is scary, man.