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Christopher Emdin
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Christopher Emdin, is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University where he serves as Co-director of the Center for Health Equity and Urban Science Education and Associate Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education

Dr. Emdin is the author of “Urban Science Education for the Hip-hop Generation”. Dr Emdin’s work has been featured on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and others. He can be reached at

Entries by Christopher Emdin

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y'all Too: Thoughts on Ron Clark's School Dance Video

(19) Comments | Posted January 13, 2016 | 11:17 AM

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 99 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 Clarks viral video, and why I aint 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. Clarks 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. Clarks 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 Ya'll 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...

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On Confederate Flags and Body Cameras: 5 Things to Consider

(1) Comments | Posted June 25, 2015 | 4:15 AM

"3:30 in the morning with not a soul in sight
We sat four deep at a traffic light
Talking about how dumb and brainwashed some of our brothers and sisters are
While we waited for a green light to tell us when to go"

The quote above...

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Geraldo Rivera: Failed Hip-Hop Icon

(2) Comments | Posted February 19, 2015 | 4:04 PM

Geraldo Rivera is most famously known for his over 40-year-old mustache that curls up at each end and has transformed from dark brown to grey and then to variations of brown again over the course of his life in front of the camera. He describes it as his signature. Something...

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5 Ways to Teach About Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year

(4) Comments | Posted August 20, 2014 | 12:23 PM

During the first few weeks of school, both teachers and students are going into classrooms unsure about what to expect from each other. Teachers are looking to establish norms, create routines, and develop a positive learning environment for the upcoming academic year. Students are trying to identify whether or not...

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5 New Approaches to Teaching and Learning: The Next Frontier

(3) Comments | Posted January 31, 2014 | 3:27 PM

In my first year of teaching about a decade ago, I was given very straightforward instructions for what I was charged to do. I was told to follow the curriculum, ensure that my students didn't disrupt the classroom, meet the state standards for my subject, and make sure that my...

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5 Ways to Engage Youth in the Fight for Civil Rights

(0) Comments | Posted January 19, 2014 | 5:14 PM

A few days ago, I placed my cell phone, keys, and wallet in a small plastic bin and slowly walked through a set of large metal detectors. After making my way through the machine, I was asked to raise my hands as an officer scanned me with a hand held...

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5 Reasons Why You Should be Listening to International Hip-Hop

(3) Comments | Posted January 13, 2014 | 4:56 PM

A few years ago I was invited to a university in South Africa to deliver a speech on ways to improve education by focusing on youth culture. I gladly accepted the invitation, and was excited to get a glimpse into South African culture. Once I arrived, I met my very...

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A Change of Heart: Maybe Don Lemon Was Right

(3) Comments | Posted August 1, 2013 | 1:53 PM

Yesterday, I wrote a piece critiquing the venom that CNN anchor Don Lemon spat at the Black community for its lack of responsibility in addressing the "thug" behavior spurred on by hip-hop culture. Since last night, I have had a change of heart. Perhaps Don Lemon is right. Perhaps we...

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On Black Culture, Don Lemon's Got It All Wrong

(184) Comments | Posted July 31, 2013 | 4:29 PM

Earlier this morning, I was sent a video clip of CNN anchor Don Lemon's usually thoughtful and increasingly controversial news segment "No Talking Points." I was expecting some interesting commentary but instead watched him dive head first into a self-righteous tirade about the lack of responsibility Blacks have...

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5 Ways to Stop a Black Scientist: Kiera Wilmot's Arrest

(34) Comments | Posted May 14, 2013 | 5:46 PM

When I was 16, I poured different amounts of baking soda into a couple of half-open ketchup containers to see what would happen. The resulting reactions were fascinating. The baking soda reacted with the vinegar in the ketchup to produce carbon dioxide. The pressure built up inside the containers, then...

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The 5 Causes of Test Cheating Scandals: From Atlanta to Washington D.C

(0) Comments | Posted April 25, 2013 | 4:05 PM

This week, Lawyers for former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall proclaimed her innocence of charges leveled against her by the Fulton County District Attorney. This proclamation came after details of test cheating scandals in Atlanta, Georgia and accusations of teaching scandals by former schools chancellor of Washington DC,...

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It's Time To End the Harlem 'Fake'

(72) Comments | Posted February 28, 2013 | 11:32 AM

I am a writer, science advocate and education researcher, but at my core I am a New York City hip-hop kid. My life has been shaped by many beautiful moments in hip-hop culture and I've been inspired by the complex ways in which hip-hip navigates the world. New York has...

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Turbans, Hoodies, and Misdirected American Aggression

(29) Comments | Posted August 24, 2012 | 9:19 AM

The first day I heard about the mass shooting of Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin I was moved to write a piece detailing the range of emotions I felt as the details of the shooting emerged. As reports described the religious background of the worshippers, the history of the gunman and...

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Geniuses Unite: The Intersection of Hip-Hop and Science

(17) Comments | Posted June 15, 2012 | 11:22 AM

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit in a room with two brilliant scientists. One is hip-hop icon GZA who has had an outstanding career as a solo artist, but is probably best known as a member of the iconic Wu-Tang Clan. The other, is world renowned...

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5 Reasons Why Romney's Urban Education Plan Is Disastrous

(54) Comments | Posted June 4, 2012 | 5:20 PM

In his most recent comments about education in the United States, and in a sampling of the rhetoric that will soon come from both parties as the presidential debates loom over the horizon, republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pronounced that inequity in education is "the civil rights issue...

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America's Youth Is Uprising: 5 Signs From Our Nation's Public Schools

(9) Comments | Posted April 13, 2012 | 12:42 PM

Last year, the whole world came to a standstill as people from across the globe connected via social media, voiced their collective frustrations with their oppressive everyday experiences, confronted old regimes and sprung into action to topple powerful and seemingly indestructible age-old political structures.

In Egypt, millions of protesters...

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Five Lessons for America from the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

(8) Comments | Posted March 21, 2012 | 5:57 PM

On February 26th 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy who was returning to his family's home in Florida from a visit to a store, was gunned down in cold blood by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community in Florida. Trayvon Martin was a Black young man...

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Jeremy Lin: Success and Stereotypes, Five Lessons for Youth

(13) Comments | Posted February 28, 2012 | 4:46 PM

The seemingly meteoric rise to stardom of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has become the subject of news stories, the theme of conversations among millions of basketball enthusiasts, and captured the imaginations of youth in classrooms across the United States. The Asian American basketball player, after stints in the...

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Releasing Teacher Ratings Is Bad Idea

(21) Comments | Posted February 22, 2012 | 6:54 PM

The dismal conditions of the nation's public schools, along with the low rankings of U.S. students compared to their peers across the globe, have awakened the general public to be more engaged in the state of education in America. The media has in turn been sensationalizing the...

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5 Ways Red Tails Can Inspire Deeper Conversations With African-American Youth

(4) Comments | Posted January 24, 2012 | 4:52 PM

The new movie, Red Tails, tells the story of the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces. The movie describes the overwhelming adversity that African Americans endured in the United States Military and provides insight into the unfounded perceptions of the intellectual capabilities of people of color....

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