By Leonel Henriquez
At the New York City Writing Project’s (NYCWP) 19th annual Teacher-to- Teacher conference, held at Lehman on March 18, its keynote address was delivered by Dr. Christopher Emdin, a Lehman alumnus and author of the New York Times bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.”
The NYCWP models itself on the belief that teachers bring knowledge, expertise and leadership to their profession and that teachers are the best teachers of one another because they bring experience gained from working in actual classrooms. The conference consisted of 25 workshops and panel sessions, all conducted by educators, on topics including literacy, communication, cultural interpretation, writing, math, ethnomusicology, common core standards, and activism.
For Jane Higgins, director of the NYCWP, having Emdin deliver the keynote speech brings her journey in education full circle. Higgins was a high school English teacher, and Emdin, “was one of my students,” she recalled. “Chris Emdin gave me language to talk about what I tried to do in the classroom.”
Emdin’s rousing and charismatic speech was titled, “Teaching to Get Woke: the Teacher, the Preacher, the Healer.” In it, he emphasized that in order to teach effectively in “the hood,” i.e. in urban centers, there must be a different level of comprehension of the hood culture where the school is located, and a better understanding of the responses required of the students that live in the area. White educators, Emdin believes, cannot come to teach in the hood with the idea that they are coming to save the hood. Educators need to better comprehend what the students are saying in response to how and what they are being taught, he said, and better communication between teacher and student fosters better learning relationships.
“Over half the suspensions in public schools as they relate to men of color or boys of color in those schools is a function of a teacher confronting a child head on and creating the dynamic that ushers that you have to respond,”he explained.“Hood rules dictate that when someone calls you out, you have to respond. When a student responds in a manner that is consistent with what his environment has taught him this paints him as a disciplinary problem and sours the student’s taste for learning.”
“The government talks about weapons of mass destruction. We have weapons of mass distraction” he said. Those distractions are things like budget cuts to after school meal programs. Emdin pointed out that some kids go to a home with little or no food and are concerned with the fact they are hungry and don’t think about doing homework. Other distractions he addresses are the debates over funding for charter and public schools. This debate, he said, distracts educators and parents, while many kids continue to go to a school without enough resources.
“I have his book and I was just inspired by him and everything he represents,” said Janice Johnson who joined Emdin in a hip-hop cypher during his address. She is a teacher at P.S. 531 in the Bronx and is earning her Masters through Lehman Teaching Fellows. She said, “I think it’s important being a woman of color teaching in the Bronx and being from the South Bronx that you have to have some kind of knowledge of who you are teaching.”
Billy Green, a teacher at the Frederick Douglass Academy III in the South Bronx, and a former student of Emdin’s concurred. “I came here today because one of the things I learned is that Chris Emdin has given us that platform, that language for us educators who like I said embrace the hood, the rules of the hood,” he said. “This book brings it all together in order for us teachers in urban centers to do our work, and for white educators like Miss Higgins who have to face a lot of backlash” he said.
The NYCWP also sponsors other events throughout the year, including a Spring Writing Marathon at Poets House, a Spring Writers’ Residency from April 20-June 8, two Summer Open Institutes for new K-12 teachers, and an Invitational Leadership Institute both from July 10 to 20, at Lehman.
Those interested can visit nycwritingproject.org.