In what was intended to be a critique of my recent keynote address at the 2017 SXSWedu conference, an uninformed, aspiring education columnist with no experience in research, theory or practice in the field does a wonderful job of showcasing her ignorance about teaching and learning, and exemplifying a major issue in the education of youth of color: the presence of clueless people who are given platforms to espouse ignorance while delegitimizing anything that makes them uncomfortable and legitimizing dangerous ideas that do not serve youths of color.
Naomi Schaefer Riley opens her New York Post article by recounting a story I told during my address that, in her mind, encapsulated my work and what I stand for. Riley, who obviously has not read my work, was made uncomfortable by phrases I used about valuing youth culture and facing the challenges that white teachers in urban schools may have when they do not share the same cultural backgrounds as their students.
Riley retells my story about the Dinka tribe in South Sudan, who once suffered an outbreak of tetanus that created lockjaw in their population. In order to make sure the children ate, the elders in the tribe removed young people’s teeth. After the outbreak ended, the tribe continued to engage in the ritual even though it was no longer necessary to violently remove teeth.
The goal of the story/analogy was to help the audience make connections between the violent physical act of extracting teeth and the emotional violence of extracting one’s art and culture from teaching and learning. My point was that both the extraction of teeth and the erasure of culture are unnecessary acts that persist simply because they have become rituals.
From this story, Riley does not ask about the rituals in traditional schools that affect students’ learning. She doesn’t wonder what I mean by emotional violence. She doesn’t ask about what aspects of art and culture are essential to learning, and how or why they are important. All Riley can pull from the analogy is that I want teachers to embrace youth culture, and that makes her very upset.
Riley does not understand the basic education principle that it is more effective to teach based on shared experiences with the learner than it is to teach without a connection. When I suggest that educators who don’t have the same backgrounds as their students learn more about student realities and use their real lives as teaching tools, Riley is perturbed.
Even though the phrase “know your students” is an adage that is shared in all schools for all youths and is a major theme in the suburban schools Riley’s children attend, Riley cannot understand why this basic concept should be extended to youths of color in urban schools. Riley can call any innovation in education Ebonics because all black culture may as well be Ebonics to her. Riley has not learned from being fired from the Chronicle of Higher Education that relegating a complex culture to Ebonics is not smart. Being fired for making silly, uninformed statements isn’t a badge of honor, and jumping into the education discussion doesn’t make her edgy and cutting edge.
Perhaps she read the first part of my book’s title, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and jumped at the chance to attack a black educator who is saying stuff about white teachers. But Riley should’ve kept reading. The title of the book is actually For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too. “The rest of y’all too” isn’t white teachers. The book addresses all teachers who take an approach to teaching and learning that reflects the flawed thinking of all the Rileys in the world.
The main crux of Riley’s argument is that schools populated by youths of color are underperforming even though there are “plenty of minority teachers.” Research (pdf) says otherwise, but we’ve already established that Riley doesn’t read.
After describing my work in bringing teachers to the communities where they teach, Riley mentions that urban schools do not give young people the most basic skills they need to survive in 21st-century America. Finally! Something on which we agree. I then read her thoughts further and realize that Riley is suggesting that the ineffectiveness of schools that serve youths of color is because black culture is being used in schools.
She cites Columbia University professor John McWhorter, who says that “people have called for education of poor black kids to reflect their culture for 50 years and none of it has made a bit of difference.” She suggests that for 50 years, schools have been focusing on black culture in schools. She missed the part of the sentence that says that “people have called for” this approach to education forever. Unfortunately, whenever we attempt to fully integrate these approaches for black and brown youths, the Rileys of the world get upset and write silly pieces that get fellow simple-minded people riled up to stifle true progress.
While the infusion of student realities into teaching has never truly happened in schools, what has been consistent is the presence of people like Riley who have no expertise in education, do not understand basic principles about teaching, and who get platforms to endorse, create or lead entire departments of education.
Riley mentions a “high-performing charter school” as a model we should be following in the education of black and brown youths. The schools she cites are successful on standardized exams but have been exposed on videotape and through endless testimonials by parents and teachers for enacting teaching practices that include yelling at and berating students of color. Apparently, Riley believes that this should be the norm for black and brown youths because the school gives them what she believes to be “the most basic skills they need for the 21st century.” Apparently, Riley thinks these students need to perform well on a test or two and be broken down mentally and emotionally.
Riley cannot fathom that basic literacy and numeracy skills can be attained without verbal and emotional abuse. In fact, she attempts to connect my belief in the value of youth realities to the soft bigotry of low expectations. According to Riley, wanting youths to feel affirmed and socio-emotionally stable as they achieve academically means that I have low expectations. This is ironic because the expectations she has for young people involves them being like her. That, to me, is the lowest of possible expectations.
Riley’s description of my research and experience as “the same nonsense” once again reflects her inability to read the text she is critiquing. In For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too, I provide a set of easily implementable strategies to support teachers in enacting practices that help them to infuse students’ realities into their instruction while maintaining academic rigor and high expectations. Unfortunately, if my approach does not look and sound like what Riley wants it to be, it is to be dismissed.
Finally, Riley mentions that I am not questioned for my stance on education because I am considered “authentic.” No, Riley, I am not questioned with stupidity about my work because I am experienced and credentialed. I am a former public school teacher, school administrator, award-winning scholar and tenured professor who has dedicated my life to researching urban public education and identifying the Rileys of the world who interrupt our progress. I do welcome questions, honest critique and any opportunity to teach the misinformed. I hope I provided some of that for Riley.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Christopher Emdin is program director of science education and associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.