What Teachers Can Gain When Students Design the Lessons

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Excerpted from For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

In this section of the book Emdin reframes the practice of "coteaching" as a partnership between the teacher and one or two students. Emdin argues for what he calls "reality pedagogy" in which students are valued experts on their own lives and contexts, and consequently know best how they should be taught. While the teacher is the content expert, he can learn from his students about how to best reach them. Emdin also uses the term "neoindigenous" when talking about urban youth of color, referring to the complicated relationship between a school system that holds white-middle class culture as the norm and youth whose lived experiences are seen as deficits to learning. 

By Christopher Emdin

Coteaching in reality pedagogy provides neoindigenous youth this opportunity to model good teaching by drawing from the three models of coteaching described earlier to create the ideal conditions for a reality-pedagogy-based model. Drawing from the first type of coteaching I described, the reality-pedagogy version focuses on creating opportunities for collaboration among experts. However, instead of having two teachers work together to create a lesson, two students or more are asked to not only teach the class but take on all the responsibilities that the teacher has for delivering the content effectively. This includes writing a lesson plan, aligning it to standards, identifying examples to be used during the lesson, finding teaching resources, arranging the seats in the class, and finding a method for the assessment of the teaching.

Coteaching in reality pedagogy requires that teachers acknowledge that they may be an expert in their content, or at teaching that content in another location/setting, but not at teaching it to the neoindigenous. The process also requires that teachers let their students know that they are not only students but teaching experts whose knowledge about how to teach has tremendous value. This value for the students must then be displayed in the classroom through deliberate practices where the teacher is indicating a role shift and signaling to students that he or she is taking on the role of student. For example, while students are teaching the class, it is important for the teacher to sit in a seat where a student normally does and not interrupt the teaching. While in the student’s seat, the teacher may takes notes on the ways that the students teach, document what they are doing differently from what the teacher would do, and pay attention to the content that is being delivered. Particular attention should be paid to the examples that students use and the ways they interact with each other; it is in these small expressions of neoindigeneity through words, expressions, and examples that the magic of teaching is revealed.

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The goal here is for the teacher to incorporate what is observed from students’ teaching into their own instruction. For example, after teaching a lesson on Newton’s laws of motion a few years ago, and struggling to get students to understand the real-life application of the concepts, I started describing what would happen if we had two marbles on an endless frictionless surface feet away from each other, and what would happen if one marble was pushed to hit the other. My thought was that students would find this imaginary scenario fascinating and that it would help them grasp the concepts I was trying to teach. However, after providing this example with all the enthusiasm I could muster, students looked up at me either completely confused or disinterested.

Later that day, with another class, I decided to see what would happen if I gave students the opportunity to teach the same lesson. I invited two students to coteach the lesson I had previously taught. I handed them the materials I used to design my lesson, gave them a quick tutorial on the concept, and assigned them to write a lesson plan instead of completing a traditional homework assignment. The next day, after reviewing their lesson plan, I was astounded by the depth and detail in the lesson they had designed. I then invited the students to teach their lesson later in the day. As they stood in front of their peers, I became so enamored with their teaching style that I began to note how they engaged with their peers. The new coteachers gave everyone equal attention, walked around the classroom freely, and most importantly, instead of giving an example about marbles on a frictionless surface like I did, they used an example of someone riding a New York City subway, and what forces acted on the person’s body after someone pulled the emergency brake. Instead of the disinterest that came from my example the previous day, the student coteachers’ example sparked a powerful conversation about unbalanced forces, Newton’s laws of motion, and how they apply to everyday life.

As the students and the coteachers engaged in this powerful conversation, I jotted down the example about riding the subway that the students used and was sure to write even more detailed notes about how they chose to describe that example to the class. I then went home and closely studied my notes and their lesson plan. I practiced my delivery of their example in the mirror till I had perfected it and then walked into the school the next day armed with a confidence and expertise about teaching that came directly from my new coteachers. In front of a class who hadn’t yet been introduced to Newton’s laws, I followed the lesson plan developed by my coteachers. As I taught, I described the example of riding the train my coteachers used and almost immediately the students engaged in ways that they had not done when I had taught the lesson previously. At one point, there was a collective “ohhhhhhhhhhh” from everyone in the class that lets any teacher know that clarity has been reached. I nodded excitedly as the lesson began to resonate with these students, knowing full well that having students serve as coteachers provided me with an opportunity to teach in a way that was directly informed by what the students needed in order to be engaged. I could not have made that type of connection on my own.

Christopher Emdin
Christopher Emdin (Ryan Lash)

As stated earlier, coteaching in reality pedagogy focuses on a willingness to share all the resources the teacher has with students who will be doing the coteaching. This includes all the information gathered over the course of the academic year about the class and about teaching the subject at hand even when the information garnered is developed with and by students. In other words, it is just as important to glean information from students on how to teach better as it is to share the successes of their teaching strategies with them and future coteachers. The more information about the kind of instruction that students respond to within a particular setting becomes available, the better the tools are that are developed, and the better equipped future coteachers are for enhancing their teaching and learning.

With the availability of new teaching tools, students approach researching, preparing for, and teaching a classroom lesson with a newfound motivation that surpasses anything that could be generated in the traditional classroom. As the student takes the helm of the classroom and uncovers new approaches to teaching, there is a positioning of both the traditional teacher and student as colearners. Within this new classroom structure, both students and teacher learn the nuances of each other’s culture and how to see the classroom from each other’s perspective. The student learns responsibility, puts in the effort it takes to prepare a lesson, and develops empathy for the struggles of the teacher. At the same time, the teacher observes lessons taught by students, takes notes on the ways that the student enacts pedagogy, documents the specific examples the student uses, takes note of the way the student/coteacher interacts with peers, and learns how to teach in ways that reflect the realities of students’ experiences.

For the neoindigenous, coteaching in reality pedagogy provides a counternarrative to the pedagogy of poverty that inscribes an anti-school identity on youth who are actually deeply engaged in school and committed to academic success. As students collect resources, prepare lessons, and share ideas, it again becomes apparent that they love the process of teaching and learning when they are a part of it. I have had experiences where students who have previously cotaught lessons stand up in the middle of a teacher’s lesson visibly upset because “it” (the teacher’s instruction) was “being done the wrong way.” When coteaching is enacted, students develop the agency or power to act in ways that challenge the oppression they are often conditioned to be silent about. They are not only vocal about when teaching is not working for them; they model what the type of teaching they need looks like. They reveal their core identities or true selves; which for the neoindigenous involves being free from any structures that inhibit them from being fully actualized. In urban classrooms, to be fully actualized is to be free to teach and learn on their own terms.

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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.