This essay appeared originally in HuffPost Black Voices.
My phone buzzes one more time. I look over at the glowing screen to see that I have been tagged once more in the Ron Clark dance video from his school in Atlanta. I nod, give a half smile at the screen, and continue on my school visits. Today, I’m in the Bronx, and am working with a group of students who are researching cell division so they can add a layer of complexity to their rap song on mitosis and meiosis. The three young men I am sitting with are concerned because the simple rhyme scheme they have developed thus far isn’t going to cut it. This realization hits after they overhear a pair of young ladies perform their rap on the reproductive system that cites recent research in biology and comes replete with choreographed dance moves to match the verse. My phone buzzes again. I am tagged in the Ron Clark video again. My response this time is two fold. My first is: Damn, this white boy got some rhythm. The second is: I feel sorry for anyone who thinks they’re just gon’ “Hit the Quan” to academic success. The fact is, if you ain’t got Clarks rhythm, and the structures are not in place to support and validate such a transgressive approach to teaching, you will fail miserably. In fact, you may end up doing much more of a disservice to the students than a traditional school would. Ron Clark works at a school that is named after him with a certain funding structure, certain rules of conduct, and very particular philosophies. If you do not have any of these structures in place, or any strategies for circumventing the ones you are bound by, I feel bad for you son...You’ve got ninety-nine problems and Hittin’ the Quan in school is one.
For over a decade, I have advocated tirelessly for the use of youth culture and student realities in urban schools. These are institutions that I know very well. I was a student in these schools. I have taught in them for years, and have studied the communities that they are nested in and the policies that maintain their dysfunction for my entire professional career. These are schools where student test scores almost always lag behind those of their white counterparts in more affluent and racially monolithic communities. They house classrooms where Black and Brown children are often so disengaged and disempowered that educators are desperate to find anything to ignite their passion for school. Most importantly, these are schools where the approaches to teaching and learning are so antiquated, and youth voice is so silenced, that different or “new” approaches to teaching are necessary.
This call for new approaches to teaching has been made by Black folks who are invested in their communities for as long as I can remember. I vividly remember my father playing Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ song “Wake up Everybody” when I was a young boy and being struck by their lament for teachers to “Teach a New Way.” This charge for teaching a new way has been taken on by educators for decades. Educators of color have been teaching a “new way” for as long as there was information to share, and someone to learn it. There were Black teachers who secretly sang songs to teach each other to read in the slave quarters and who engaged in complex call and response in order to get students to learn their multiplication tables in schools where white administrators would punish them for these approaches. This “new way” is in many ways our way—a culturally relevant and responsive approach to education. “Our way” is what my work in #HipHopEd and Reality Pedagogy is rooted in. These are approaches to teaching and learning that utilize the complex culture that youth are engaged in to teach content in a way that draws from hip-hop, and is as rigorous as it is engaging.
Now back to Ron Clark’s viral video, and why I ain’t trippin’. Dude was doing what works for his students in a school he operates in Atlanta, which is currently the contemporary hip-hop dance capital of the world. If the dance that is being done in Clark’s school engages young people in a locale that celebrates the form (contemporary hip-hop dance), I am for it. In fact, when Black joy is expressed in schools through a method that the youth actively engage in, we all win. There are less suspensions, there is more active learning, and there is more community engagement.
What pains me about the video is the way that it has become an exemplar for “teaching a new way” without highlighting the larger traditions that birth this approach. Educators of color do this type of work everyday and often get punished for it by school administrators, and critiqued for it by school systems that question the merit of anything other than following scripted curricula when teaching Black and Brown students. Mr. Clark’s whiteness, while not an impediment to his teaching, has been fashioned by an audience that exoticizes white performance of Blackness to become complicit in the erasure of a Black teaching tradition that fights every day for visibility and validation. The question then becomes: Is it possible to be concerned about larger issues related to White folks who teach in the hood and still celebrate what is happening in Clark’s school with youth of color? The answer is yes. We can like the dance and still ask what happens after the routine is over and the students get back to the classroom. Asking these questions does not mean that powerful work is not happening in Mr. Clark’s school. It doesn’t mean people are hating. It does allow us to see the way that media (social media included) becomes so enamored by “the show” that it distracts us from questioning and possibly learning about the most important parts of this approach to teaching—What happens next? What are students learning? What do I have to learn about myself and my students first? How do I ensure that students are making connections to content? How do I ensure I am not misusing their culture?
As I look at my tags in this video, a few concerns emerge. I am concerned that people do not see that the dance has to be the beginning of a larger conversation that gets dulled by the spectacle of the performance. I am also concerned that folks will not see that this approach cannot be blindly transported to another school without embracing larger strategies to support what happens next. Just being White with rhythm will not equip someone to be an effective teacher of youth of color. The work necessary to embark on such an endeavor cannot be replaced by a dance routine. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am concerned about what is being revealed about many educators by the harsh and borderline offensive critiques of the video. There are educators who are livid with Clark, and who are coupling their critique of Ron Clark with an endorsement of more traditional approaches to formal education that have proven to disengage youth of color and stifle their creativity. These are “progressive educators” who are essentially saying that they are more invested in, and devoted to flawed educational systems than the joy of Black and Brown young people. We’ve got to move beyond that.
What this video has done for me is open up the space for a much more nuanced conversation about what it takes to teach effectively. It highlights some of the questions I take on in my book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too. My take is that White folks who teach in the hood...and the rest of ya'll need too, need to ask some different questions about the art and craft of teaching. In the process, don’t knock dude for trying to spark some magic with his kids. That is always the first step.
About the Author
Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. The creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., Emdin was named the 2015 Multicultural Educator of the Year by the National Association of Multicultural Educators and has been honored as a STEM Access Champion of Change by the White House. In addition to teaching, he serves as a Minorities in Energy Ambassador for the US Department of Energy. Follow him on Twitter at @.