Podcast: On Being a POC in Academic Spaces Feat. Dr. Chris Emdin on Teachers in America

Photo: Noelle Morris interviewed Dr. Chris Emdin before school closures.

Welcome back to the HMH Learning Moments podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Dr. Chris Emdin, an Associate Professor of Science Education at Columbia University in New York, NY. Chris recently created a Literacy at Work: How to Write a Rap video lesson for HMH's YouTube Channel—and we asked him to sit down for a thought-provoking conversation here on our podcast, too. Learn more about Chris on his website chrisemdin.com, and follow him on Twitter @chrisemdin.

This episode was recorded prior to school closures and the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris.

Our special guest today is Dr. Chris Emdin, an Associate Professor of Science Education at Columbia University. Chris works to support diverse students in their STEM learning through an understanding of race and culture. He is a director at the Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education, and an associate director at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Columbia. He has also been a guest and contributor on PBS, TEDX, NBC, and CBS, just to name a few.

Chris is the founder of Science Genius and HipHopEd, a nonprofit educational organization that boosts student voice by utilizing youth culture. His articles can be found in the New York Times and The Atlantic. He is also author of White Folks Who Teach In the Hood and the Rest of Ya’ll Too, a New York Times best-seller.

Noelle’s full video interview with Chris, recorded before school closures, is now available on HMH’s YouTube channel.

Now, here's Chris and Noelle.

Chris the author of several books about education, and has an upcoming publication titled Ratchetdemic: Re-Imagining Academic Genius.

Noelle Morris: Chris, thank you for joining our Teachers in America podcast.

Chris Emdin: I'm psyched to be here. Thanks for having me.

Noelle: Well, I'm glad you're psyched. I’ve held my composure, because when we first approached you and talked to you—I think you realize now that I could talk to you every day.

Chris: It's all good!

Noelle: As soon as we met, a year ago, I was like, "We're fast friends."

Chris: Synergy.

Noelle: Synergy. Different generations, but definitely on the same wavelength.

The first thing I want to just come right out and ask you to define and share with us is Ratchetdemia. Explain that to me and explain how you came up with that concept—and how do you share that with other teachers?

Chris: Ratchetdemic, or Ratchetdemia or being Ratchetdemic is a thing—I don't even think I came up with it. I think it just sort of evolved. I mean, the concept of being ratchet has existed forever. A lot of Southern hip-hop use the phrase ratchet to describe people who are lowbrow and raw and just overtly performative.

I go even further than that. My first relationship with the word ratchet was [in the] mid-80s, early 90s.

Noelle: It was a negative. Growing up, if you were called “ratchet”—

Chris: It was not a beneficial thing. In 90s Brooklyn, being ratchet was like a weapon, it was like a gun. So “ratchet” has always had these negative connotations. In the 70s, there was a character called Nurse Ratched [from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest], who was this evil, mean woman nurse, which I came to discover. And then in 90s Brooklyn, the ratchet was like a gun; it was, like, violent and negative.

And then [in] the 90 and 2000s, [in] Southern hip-hop, ratchet is all negative. So it's something that has always had a negative connotation, but I think it's not inherently negative. Because sometimes [with] people who are loud and abrasive, [other] people think, "You're so aggressive."

But you know, those are just expressions of love and charisma and personality. Being academic is seen as the opposite.

Noelle: You and I talked about it, the two. I see it as allowing myself to be in my raw space without being over-forced into conformity.

Chris: Well, you've said it. You asked me the question, that was the answer.

You can be raw, real, authentic, even if it's viewed in a negative way, but it's who you authentically are, and concurrently be smart and intelligent and brilliant. And that you don't have to perform brilliance. You know how some people perform brilliance? They act like they're smart, but they're boring.

Noelle: It's like any lecture hall where it's just like, "I'm going to tell you what you need to know and that's all you need to know."

Chris: "All right, class, sit down. Here's the information, soak it in. If you want to answer a question, please raise your hand."

Noelle: Or, "Go to the parking lot." Like, I have never handled a parking lot.

Chris: I have parking lot issues. I have like parking lot trauma. Because a parking lot is like, “Go away and don't be engaged and don't bring who you are.”

Noelle: And if I think about that question after I finished what I want to say—

Chris: Then come back. And then, by the time you come back, you’ve forgotten it. And sometimes the beauty of being academic is being in the moment and sharing what you have to offer.

So anyway, Ratchetdemic is just merging those worlds so that I can be myself and be smart. I can be hood and be intelligent. I can be loud and abrasive and I can still be genius. And we can have identities that bring all of it together. And when young people understand that being smart is not performing smartness, the world opens up.

They see, “Oh my gosh, I could be more than just some version of me.” And I actually have a book coming out and the title is Ratchetdemic: Re-Imagining Academic Genius.

Excellence does not have to look a certain way. Being academic is not a performance. Being Ratchetdemic is an identity. And I want all young folks to be Ratchetdemic. Because I want them all to know and love who they are and still have high intellect and high value for things that are about pursuing knowledge.

Being your authentic self and performing intelligence is a struggle that many educators face.

Noelle: I want to talk about that too, on the side of being a teacher, being a white teacher, being a teacher of color. Because there's a couple of things—I've always said “y'all.” And when I tried to take that out of my vocabulary, even as an English language arts teacher, I was losing myself. I was like, “What am I doing?”

And I'm not going to be like, “Y'all, we’re talking about Romeo and Juliet." But my students started realizing, “Ms. Morris, why are you saying so many words to get to the one part?” And I find that, with teachers of color—and I want you to talk me through this and help me learn too, in the ability to code switch.

Chris: Well, the bottom line is that being a person of color in academic spaces, it’s almost transplanted onto you before you even open a word, there is a perception that you're less than, or that you don't have a command of the language, or that you don't know the rules of engagement. So there's more of a need to perform intelligence because what your authentic self is, is definitely seen as not intelligent.

So your use of “y'all” doesn't mean that you don't understand that it's “you all,” and that you can't use “you all” in the appropriate context. But your raw self is “y'all.” And for folks of color, sometimes it’s like if I say, “y'all,” they're going to think I'm dumb. If I speak a certain way, they're going to misperceive me as not having the credentials to be here.

I have a likelihood to be more performative. But if I'm more performative, I'm losing my authenticity. And then I can't connect as well. So, you're stuck in this conundrum, right? If I'm my authentic self, my principal or AP might come in and say, “Why are you speaking to the kids that way? Don't you know subject-verb agreement? Why aren't you getting this right?”

But if I perform something different, the raw self that I am that connects to young folks gets lost. And so you're just stuck in a pedagogical purgatory.

Noelle: Right. And I noticed today in the lesson that I got to watch you lead with the students and Loaded Lux, you're also not afraid of noise. Right? "You don't have good classroom management if your class is not quiet, if it's not in rows." Now that's not the way we teach in 2020.

But Chris, I could hear this class down the hall, and no one in this hallway even was bothered. But you weren't bothered either, because to me the noise meant it was almost like your formative assessment that they're getting it. They're collaborating. They hear each other. I was seeing that it was a student’s form of peer feedback.

Chris: Ain't nothing like good noise in the classroom. Nothing like it. Because if young folks are so enthused and passionate and engaged in what you've taught them that they want to have discussions about it, and they want to ask questions to you and others about it, then that's magic. That's how I know I did something.

If my class is too quiet, I question my effectiveness. If they’re just passively engaging, there's no enthusiasm, there's no feel. If there's no feel that I'm not good. It doesn't mean that they can't get the content. They may be able to. I may have touched the mind, but I can't get to the soul.

You know, when I get to the soul, that's when it comes out viscerally. And I think it's really interesting that you raised that point about down this hallway, no one complained. We are in the kind of places that folks say they want kids to get to. You know, "Learn this way so you can make it to an Ivy League institution."

When you're at Columbia University, there's noise, baby. We're engaging, we're asking questions, people are walking around in the hallways, they’re spilling in and out of class. In places where there is an appreciation for high intellect, there's a recognition that high intellect is an exercise that is not limited to the classroom.

Loaded Lux and Chris Emdin in his classroom, post rap battle.

Noelle: Or an outline. I know that as a team, we were like, “Should we get an outline from Chris?” And I said, “Chris has it in his head.” We have to sometimes trust.

Chris, do you know how many times I got in trouble [because] my lesson plans weren't on time?

Chris: I get it.

Noelle: And I would say, “I have it. I know what I'm going to do.” And I've never been able to explain, even to this day, the way I work. I know people struggle with my organization or how I perceive my work. I'll often hear, “I don't know how you do what you do. I don't know how you stay organized.” My response back is, “I don't know how to tell you necessarily what I do.”

And so when I watched you, and I've connected with you, there's this same creativity. I didn't need to come in here and see a learning outcome on the wall or target or a standard to know what you were hitting and to know that you were planned.

So talk to me and our listeners in the sense of future educators and administrators who were meeting creative teachers.

Chris: It's the distinction between a lesson plan and a lesson script that folks don't tease out. You know, folks say they want a teacher to give them a lesson plan. That's not what they want. They want a script. They want a play-by-play of every moment. But the beauty of teaching and learning is that you should be able to be nimble enough to move at the whim of a student's attention and go where they need to.

For me, I have to have high expectations. I have to have benchmarks I want to meet, and I have to have in my mind what I can get from kids to indicate that I'm meeting where they need to go. But if I confine myself to a script, then I can't be flexible enough to meet my benchmarks. And I think that we have to learn the difference between a script and a plan.

You have to plan. To teach well, you have to have a plan. In my mind, and on paper, I have “This is what I want to get at the end of this.”

Noelle: It's more of a sketch, right? It's not a framework or…

Chris: That's it! It needs to be a sketch. It needs to be a heuristic.

It needs to be a diagram. It needs to be a map, but it cannot be too detailed. It cannot be too structured. It cannot be, "At minute 45, I'll ask the kids this. At minute 47, they should…" Because in that way, you're asking a question and you have a prescribed answer and there's no prescribed answers in good learning.

Being able to freestyle is important, not just for rap battles, but for sketching out a lesson plan.

Noelle: I saw this today and I want people as they're listening to this podcast, and when they go back into some of our YouTube videos and see this lesson that you did—I want to bring some attention to watching you in action. The lesson’s phenomenal, right? The student output, the engagement, the collaboration, seeing the connections that can easily be made.

There’s still a moment of, “You're an adult, you're a teacher and they’re students." But you are in a moment and you're with them and I can see in your eyes, you know where this lesson's going to go when you want it to go. You were about to make a decision. "Well, I want to go this way," and it was your will and [the student] was not going to let you, she kept coming back at it.

Talk to us as future teachers, as teachers. How do you get so comfortable with yourself that you allowed [the student] to make the decision?

Chris: Teachers have to trust the students. If you've earned the respect of the student, even if they're taking you in a different direction, they respect you enough to ensure that they get you right back on course. And they're sharing with you what they need.

I always tell my aspiring teachers that I work with, “You have to have a freestyle ability, which is the ability to just be in the moment and trust that you're going to get to the right spot. And you have to be able to freestyle.”

The best assessments I know are in the eyes of young people. And when she said, “No, I need more time…”

Noelle: [The student] was making eye contact with you. And she kept looking down at her work. And then she's be like—

Chris: “Dude, get this right.” And I had to get it right. And I had to trust that [the student would] get us where we needed to go.

And another thing I've learned, as a teacher, the best rule ever is never go one-on-one. Whenever there's a moment where a young person is adamant about something, it doesn't matter if they're right or wrong, in their mind and their heart they're invested in this thing. You can't battle a kid one-on-one because once you create that confrontation on a one-on-one, now you take everybody out of the zone, out of the element, and then everybody's watching the spectacle. And they're looking at that spectacle to see who wins. And once you do that, then you activate this thing I call affiliation and alienation, which is now, I've got to pick a side. Am I going to pick the student, or am I going to pick the teacher? And here's the thing: the teacher, as an adult, they have more social capital with the young people.

Nine times out of ten, they're going to pick the young person. Now you're the outsider. And if you're the outsider, then they all can coalesce against you. And then the lesson doesn't get done.

There were a couple of lessons. One: never go one-on-one. Two: trust the student to get the lesson back. Three, trust yourself to be able to freestyle yourself back the way you need to go. And then four—Joel M. Beats says this, trust the process.

This whole teaching and learning is a dance more than anything else. You trust your partner because your partner wants to get you to have the best performance, as well.

Noelle: But there was a moment too, where I was watching your proximity to the learners, and you were naturally okay if you turned your shoulder and your back to students who were much engaged with you. To turn over here and say, “What's coming over here?” And then as other students would be like, “Yo, listen to what I'm doing,” you knew that those students had already known and realized you see them, you hear them, that what they're doing is on track. But that's part of their personality.

And you would do just enough to look over and say, “I hear you, but I got to come over here.”

Chris: People think that your words are your main tool. But as a teacher, your body is your instrument. Literally the physicality of your being. People ask me all the time why I'm so concerned with aesthetics. You know, I'll do the bow ties. Why do I have so much attention to detail in my aesthetics?

Because as a teacher, I see you. This is important. You have the blue and white seersucker vibe with the pink accents. Your watch is blue and pink. Your earrings are pink, the touch of pink in your lipstick. And when you're working with young people, every iota of your body is part of your teaching.

So your attention to aesthetics has to be off the hilt. Because they notice all those things like, “Oh my gosh, she cared enough to match her shirt to her watch for me. She cares enough about me.”

But most importantly, my body is like my weaponry, right?

So a shoulder to a student, not turning your back, but a shoulder to a student says, “I'm not focused on you right now, but [my shoulder] is still focused on you. At any second, I can always turn back around and you're with me.”

So I can't give a kid my back, but I can give a kid my shoulder. The shoulder says, "You're not my main focus, but I'm always ready for you." That's pedagogical while I'm focusing on this young person. One young person that I might be focusing on, they just need eye contact. They don't need my words. They just need me to look at them. I can do shoulder to one, eyes to the other, hand on shoulder of the other. All at the same time. And I'm saying three different things to three different young people, and I haven't said any words yet.

Now, my voice could be like, “Yo, over there, I see y'all.” So now I'm communicating with one, two, three, and four at once. And I think teachers have to understand how to feel comfortable in their skin, because every square inch of your body should be teaching. Your words are just the part that is heard, but what your body does is what is felt.

And you can't get to that part of full teaching in that way, until you're comfortable in your own skin.

Noelle: I would always realize where my teacher blind spots were because I would catch myself, “Noel you're too much over here.” And I would remember when I'd stand in my room to see where my blind spots were to see how I could corral or reshape the classroom to not have as many blind spots.

Chris: Noelle, you get so much of the technical aspect of this craft that I wish more people got. Because, see, like my one, two, three, and four can easily shift within a millisecond to another one, two, three, and four. And I think it's about—the shifting of the body also lets you know that if there's a blind spot in this moment, a millisecond can connect to another young person.

One day I'll do this work, right? Like, there are angles to your body that allow you to be able to have a certain presence in the classroom, and if you're not aware of what your body is saying, you'd be surprised at what outcomes you're getting. [People might be saying], “He's talking about all these angles and backs and shoulders to students.” But I've literally done studies where young folks who don't get the right angles respond to my instruction differently.

I just need us all to understand the power. Listen, teaching is such magic.

The way an educator angles their body may allow them to acknowledge several students at once, and reduce classroom blindspots.

Noelle: It is. And the magic happens so often. I'm sitting here going, “I cannot believe that I got to sit back and watch Christopher Emdin.” And then you allow me to say, “Hey Chris, when you were doing this, did you know…” And you and I are having this conversation

I see you as my coach; you're letting me coach. We are together; we're giving feedback. This is why I'm so open, and you allow me to be so open to ask you questions where I'm still also 25 years in this, and want to learn, want to give.

Today one of the lessons that came out of you and Loaded Lux—and I want everyone to hear this because I've been waiting to share my word— you brought up that Loaded Lux had the word “Healthy” on his shirt. And that again is an aesthetic that's purposely, intentionally decided. He talked about having a word, "What is your word?" And his was “Healthy.” And then he also said “Beloved,” and I remember watching some of the rap battles.

And today I was sitting back here and I was like, I'm going to tell Loaded Lux that when I was three, five years old, my dad called me Boogie. Boogie was my nickname. He's listening and he's leaning in. He's like, “Tell me more.” And I said, “Here's why, at 50, I know my dad saw I had the ability to get the rhythms, to hear the sounds, to hear the beats and connect to the lyrics, connect to people, connect to what's happening in our society.”

Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a consciousness that you have.

Noelle: It's a consciousness. To this day, music and hip hop and all that has been a part of my life. So I want to ask you: What's your word? And then we're going to talk about some walk-ups songs and other things.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I got it. You said so much. You said so much beautiful and magical stuff.

One of my favorite thinkers ever is Maxine Green. I love her, and Maxine, she would say to me, “In this world we never arrive. We're always becoming.” And when you said, "It's 25 years, I still want to get better"—you never get to be the perfect teacher. You're always evolving to be a more informed pedagogue, you're always adding things. And I think once teachers feel as though “Now I've got it,” that's when I know for a fact you don't have it. When you said that, that struck me.

And my word, I have a couple of words, man. Sometimes it's “Vision.” I see what's going on in a place, but I also see the emotion. I see the reactions. So as a teacher, I want to always activate this, like, Stevie Wonderesque inner vision, to be able to see beyond what folks are giving you, to see what's left going [on] behind the scenes. So I think “Vision” is a good one for me.

I think “Power.” “Purpose.” Everything I want to do, everything I do, I want to do with purpose and with intention. And then there's also an element of what I do, which is odd for me to share on this platform, but there's an element of what I do that's hater-proof, you know what I mean?

If you want to do any revolutionary work, if you want to do anything important in the world, you have to recognize that folks are going to say things about you. People are going to critique you. People are going to make things up, and you've got to be hater-proof.

Noelle: I love the "hater-proof!" Now that is going to be on a T-shirt underneath what I'm wearing, because to me, you are so calm. That is going back to the rap battle.

Chris: Yeah. I'm hater-proof! “You can say whatever you want, my G. I'm good.”

Noelle: I know when I leave here, I'm still good. I'm still doing it.

"Everything I want to do, everything I do, I want to do with purpose and with intention."

Chris: And with battle rap what's so fascinating is that, I always make the argument that those folks are jousting with words and saying horrific things as a means to prepare themselves for going out into—look, what you’re witnessing for them is a safe space. My friends are here, my family is here, whatever else it is. I'm in a safe space jousting with an opponent. And he's throwing everything he can at me, but at the end of the day, I'm in a safe space so that when I go out into the world, it's an unsafe space, and there's nothing somebody else can say that can harm me, because I'm already equipped to deal with it in safe spaces.

So that thing, that insulting, whatever else it is, I know it's problematic for folks who are outside of the culture. You have to understand that is those folks that creating equipping themselves with a thick skin to handle the oppression and the challenges of the real world.

Noelle: But isn't that the same, when we think about teachers within different generations—

Chris: Of course!

Noelle: To me, we are being too cruel and judgmental, teacher to teacher. And we cannot be successful completely in our profession, we cannot keep that magic going, if I'm always like, “Look at him over there. Why does he think he can wear that bow tie and that hat? Why does she think she knows what she's doing?”

Why did we do this to young teachers in the profession? “How can she possibly, or how can he possibly know what he's doing? He's only been doing this for a year or two years."

Chris: Because people are jealous of people who exemplify something that they lack. And sometimes seasoned educators have had their passion extracted from them or robbed from them. So when they see a young person who's connecting in that way, they're just jealous because they don't have it anymore.

I'm being dead serious. And I always tell young folks who have this, like, sauce for this kind of magic, "Don't let somebody else's critique of who you are make you become a version of them."

Because the reason why they're critiquing you is because they love what you have to offer and they don't know how to get it back. So that idea of being hater-proof is an essential piece of this work. And people look at me all the time and make brash judgments, you know, "Why is he wearing a hat?" I get it all the time. "He's working with kids—why does he have a hat on?" There's a big psychology around me wearing my hat, as a man of color as an educator.

I know that historically, when a black man enters a room with other folks, the way to show you're less than this is to take your hat off for them.

And historically, for my people, you take your hat off as a way to give a white person with power, power over you. It doesn't matter if you have a title over them, it doesn't matter if you're more informed, more educated, you take your hat off as a way to say, “Regardless of what happens, you have power over me.” So for me, my wearing my hat is a political act to affirm my presence.

Now some folks are, “Well, you should take your hat off. Gentlemen take their hat off.” Well, where did that come from? I know of young folks of color in public schools right now that don't take their hat off, and them not taking their hat off leads to suspension and leads to special education. And it's a hat!

And for me, you know, it has political significance. For all those young folks who are forced to take their hat off [and] don't because it's their crown, for all those young folks who wear their hat because [it's a] way that they can affirm their presence, I, as Professor Emdin, keep my hat on.

And if you don't understand the complexity of that, and you want to hate because of that, you know, I feel sorry for you, because you don't understand the depth of the urban experience. You don't understand the complexity of the black experience and you don't have to be black or white to not understand that, because there are black folks who have the same thing.

I always say, there are black folks who suffer from white supremacist ideologies, sometimes more than white folks do. And I think we all have to heal from those biases, so it can be better for young people.

Aesthetic details like a pocket square or the color of a watch can show a student that you care about what they think, without saying a word.

Noelle: So, Chris, I'm now on this; I'm truly inspired to make sure every teacher knows their walkup song. You need to have it in your head, even if it's not playing out loud, you need to be playing it, so you own who you are, you be you, and then when you walk into the class, if there's an energy, there's a radiance.

Chris: I got two of them for you. My first one is “Everything Man” by Talib Kweli. It plays in my head every time I walk to give a talk. And then my other one is “Win” by Jay Rock, which is just like a victory lap kind of song.

And you know what I would say my third one is? “Til This Day” by Loaded Lux is a powerful song too.

Noelle: I'm going to start using more of SoundCloud because that's where you find a lot of hidden gems and talent and descriptions.

So teachers out there, if you don't have your walkup song, if you don't have your playlist, you need one!

Chris, it has been so amazing. Your contribution to aspiring teachers, your contribution to middle-age Generation Xers still finding their voice. But most importantly, the gift that you're bringing to kids... I keep referring to them after learning more from dosomething.org, the whole thing of this Generation Z, because I'm raising one, and I just find it gives me breath, it gives me hope, it gives me energy. And I know that you and I will be talking more because…

Chris: Oh, we will, we're connected now. I'm going to give you a pound. You've earned the pound.

Noelle: I was waiting because I was like, I don't think I've gotten a pound from Chris yet.

Chris: No, you've earned the pound. This has been great. Thank you for all for allowing me on your platform and thank you guys so much for visiting today and for us to have this conversation and capturing those beautiful young people.

And I just got to give some shout outs real quick, hip-hop fashion.

I want to give a shout out to my hip-hop ed family. Every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM Eastern on Twitter for convening and exchanging Emil Cook, Tim Jones, Kiana Spelman, Nikki Knowledge, shout out to Eb, shout out to Loaded Lux, shout out to everybody who's out there who believes in the power and potential of young people. Despite what it may seem like, we will win because they will win.

Noelle: Thank you!

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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