Meeting Our Students Where They Are

What if we utilize our students’ realities to make content learning more accessible? What if we immerse them in the planning and design of teaching that learning to others? What if we unlearn what we have been taught about what good teaching entails? What if we not only think out of the box but redesign it altogether?

These are just some of the questions that were swimming in my head following Dr. Christopher Edmin’s awesome presentation Teaching Method- Reality Pedagogy, the 4th conference in the 2015-16 Speaker Series: Lenses on Equity (hosted by the Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning).


Dr. Emdin is an assistant professor of science education and director of secondary school initiatives at the Urban Science Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. I first heard Dr. Emdin speak a few years ago in another conference and I remember being inspired back then by his knowledge, energy and passion for improving science education for our inner city youth. But this is the first time I hear him speak about the concept of Reality Pedagogy.

Through Reality Pedagogy, teachers give students the opportunity to express their voice and indicate how they would like to learn. It is teaching and learning based on the students’ cultural experiences. That is, teachers capitalize on inner city students’ knowledge of the Hip Hop culture to help them develop relationships with science education. Dr. Emdin challenges educators and administrators to unlearn what they have been taught thus far about what good teaching ought to look like. Instead of expecting students, especially students of color, to conform to how we teach what if we give them the floor and allow them the opportunity to engage in cogenerative dialogues, which are conversations between teacher and students about what is happening in the classroom.  The purpose of these dialogues is to promote a deeper understanding of how students learn best as they make connections with their real world knowledge of Hip Hop to understand the science content being taught.

Dr. Emdin encourages educators to make it their business to learn about the realities of the students they teach- their neighborhoods, their culture, their interests, their methods of communication- and use that knowledge to get them hooked. When that happens then they can begin to teach content. This idea of making content relevant to students’ realities is not new. However, it implores educators to delve deeply into the culture of their students to learn about their realities and use that to make the connection and thus facilitate content learning. When students make that connection, they succeed at learning.

To maintain that interest in learning, we have to also modify our approach to assessment. Varying the forms of assessments students can use to express their learning is essential to promote equity for students of color and disadvantaged students. Teachers should be flexible and open minded when assessing students because, simply put, not all kids are alike and not all kids learn the same way.

Listening to Dr. Emdin speak and trying to wrap my mind around his fast paced, energetic rhetoric, I felt that he is speaking to the inner teacher in all of us. I started thinking about the real purpose of education: What do we want more than anything for all our students? Do we want them to be happy and successful while enjoying the process of learning? Or, do we want to raise a population of automatons who learn nothing more than how to conform and memorize content just to recall it back on tests?

As teachers and administrators that are serious about completely eliminating the achievement gap and promoting equitable, authentic learning opportunities for all students, then we owe it to ourselves to take the time to listen to our students and learn about their thinking process and the issues they deeply care about. We have to capitalize on what they know best to get them to understand the content we hope to teach them.

Following Dr. Emdin’s presentation, a panel of teachers, administrators and a student discussed how they promote equity in their schools. Having a student be part of the panel and sitting side by side with teachers and school leaders is a phenomenal way of empowering youth and demonstrating that young people’s voices matter. The student, a senior from Thomas Edison High School, was very articulate and confident as his principal sitting by his side established that this type of student empowerment is the norm at his school. Students are encouraged to teach their peers and even plan out professional development for the teachers.

Just think about the endless possibilities we would establish for all young people if we give them the chance to express their voice; a chance to think, innovate and produce; a chance to feel respected for what they think and believe; a chance to feel important enough to contribute something worthwhile; a chance to use their experiences- their reality- as a gateway to learning together.

You can follow Dr. Emdin on Twitter @chrisemdin

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