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How Teachers Can See Students' Identities As Learning Strengths

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Time and again both research and anecdotal stories from impactful teachers show that trust and respect are crucial ingredients to high functioning classrooms. But reaching that level of deep understanding with a diverse group of learners requires more than acting professionally or expertise in academic content. Often the disconnect between a teacher’s culture and his or her students’ culture unintentionally creates a divide.

In his new book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood: and the Rest of Y’all Too, Dr. Christopher Emdin writes that when teachers adopt what he calls “reality pedagogy” they can bridge the gap between themselves and their students and reach deeper levels of content learning. Teaching with reality pedagogy means, in part, opening up space for, and actively valuing, students’ expertise on their own lives, communities and ways of learning.

Emdin acknowledges these practices can be difficult for teachers schooled in a more traditional approach to education, but his work as a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University has convinced him that teachers from all backgrounds are capable of using this approach effectively. He not only uses the practices with his own graduate students, but he has watched them go out into classrooms around the country and do the same.



George Sirrakos’ first teaching experience was in the Bronx, and although he grew up in New York City, he had rarely been to the neighborhoods his students called home. As a white, male teacher, his experience growing up as a New Yorker did not mirror those of his students, and he wanted to try out some of the reality pedagogy techniques he learned in Dr. Emdin’s class.

Sirrakos said he first tried a core practice Emdin calls “co-generative dialogue,” where teachers select students who represent a variety of classroom experiences to give feedback on the class. The teacher actively listens and solicits solutions students believe would help them. Sirrakos said when he first tried this, students just complained.

“As a new teacher, I was spending a lot of time on my lesson plans, so when you think you’re spinning this brilliance to students and then they spend an hour telling you why this class sucks so much, it’s kind of eye opening,” Sirrakos said. Naturally, he immediately felt defensive, but he worked hard to hold those feelings at bay and focused on listening to what the students were saying.

For example, Sirrakos had spent a lot of time and his own money to decorate his science classroom with posters and quotes he hoped would inspire his science students. In a dialogue, one student told him that his class environment was boring. Sirrakos was confused and pointed out all the decorations on the walls meant to liven up the room. His students explained those images represented him, not them. Sirrakos was still confused, but he asked his students to help him fix the problem.

Students started bringing in their own posters, including things they made. The one rule was it had to be related to science in some way. Immediately students were more cheerful. “They have to be part of the solution,” Sirrakos said. “That’s where we talk about having these co-generative plans of action.” In this example, the solution didn’t require a big shift, it only required that Sirrakos recognize he wasn’t achieving the result he thought he was, and be open to students’ owning their classroom space.

In his first two years of teaching, Sirrakos felt like he was being pulled in two directions. His first year went fairly well, although he realized he was using a hyper-standardized way of teaching with lots of rote memorization. Students took to it well because they were used to that approach. But as he gradually began using more reality pedagogy, he noticed students were more involved in their learning.

It was a big shift when he really started to believe that, “whatever the students are telling me does have some value,” Sirrakos said. “I still position myself as the expert when it comes to pedagogy and learning, but I don’t position myself as the sole holder of that knowledge.”

Practically, this means Sirrakos continues to do co-generative dialogues to get student input and then acts on the feedback he receives. He lets them choose how they will display their knowledge, not always insisting on a standardized assignment. He encourages student questions, even if they take the conversation beyond the curriculum. And, he admits to students when he’s not an expert.

Trained as a biologist, Sirrakos has less depth of knowledge about physics. So, when students asked questions that were beyond his knowledge he told them he didn’t know and encouraged them to try to find the answers on their own and report back. He’d give them extra credit when they did their own research to answer student-posed questions.

The core part of this approach has little to do with how teachers invite students to participate in creating the class -- co-generative dialogues are just one way -- but giving students authentic voice matters. When teachers insist that class be structured one way, with a single measure of success, and materials created from one point of view, it doesn’t feel designed for the students themselves. Listening to their input, acting on it, and valuing who they are and what they bring to the classroom without preconceived notions about their identities is a core part of implementing this approach.


Another core strategy Emdin discusses in his book is co-teaching, in which teachers ask students to master material and teach it to their peers. In his book Emdin writes, “the fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neoindigenous student is the expert on the best way to deliver information to others who are part of their culture.” This is true any time the teacher’s culture is not the same as their students, regardless of race and class.

Emdin writes about the disconnect he felt from his mostly white Ivy-league graduate students. They didn’t connect to his style of teaching, but when he let them teach each other parts of the curriculum they responded much better. It’s important to note that when Emdin watched students teach, he felt the pace was too slow and that it wasn’t how he would teach, but that didn’t make it wrong. The other students in the class responded very positively to these experiences because the teaching was of their culture. And Emdin learned some things he could use to reach his students better.

Sirrakos has had success using co-teaching methods with both his Bronx students and students an an elite international school in Germany, although he says it requires more time and effort. Students aren’t teachers, even though they often communicate with one another more clearly than their teacher can. When asking students to design and give a lesson, the teacher has to be prepared to give them plenty of time to master the content, and provide support with materials and lesson formats. Sirrakos found it was important to share with students that he wanted to learn from their styles of teaching.

“What I learned was having students undergo that iterative process, they were able to function as ambassadors for future students,” Sirrakos said. This was a side benefit because it empowered students to play an even more invested role in the culture and function of the classroom.

Sirrakos remembers one student teaching a lesson about the process of photosynthesis, which involves chloroplast and chlorophyll within the plant cell. The student put up a picture of a Twinkie. He asked his classmates what was on the outside of a Twinkie; they answered, a plastic wrapper. Good, he said, so you’re going to remember that chloro-"plast,” like plastic, is on the outside. Then he asked what was on the inside of a Twinkie; creme filling they answered. So chloro-"phyll,” like filling, is on the inside. Students immediately got it and when they took exams Sirrakos would sometimes notice students writing those analogies in the margin so they could remember.

Sirrakos used the analogy with many future classes, although he discovered it didn’t work with his students in Germany who weren’t familiar with Twinkies because they came from a different culture. Sirrakos also learned from his students that his PowerPoints were boring compared to theirs and that his body language and positioning in the classroom was holding him at a distance. He noticed that when students taught, they moved around, joining their peers in the middle of the room, whereas when he was teaching he would often stay at the front.

He began incorporating all these ideas into his own teaching and his students gradually became more engaged with the material and seemed to learn it better too. Interestingly, many of the more progressive teaching practices were already in place at the German international school and Sirrakos unconsciously began teaching more traditionally, perhaps because his students were more affluent and he thought they’d get it on their own.

But his students started acting out in class and showing other signs of disengagement. Emdin reminded Sirrakos that he was a foreigner in their culture and needed to use the same reality pedagogy strategies to reach these students as he had with the inner city New York City students who had a different culture. This was an important lesson -- the reality of students each year is going to be different.

“The content may not change, but your ability to make the connections between their realities and the content is going to be different,” Sirrakos said.


Wauwatosa is a suburban area outside Milwaukee. And in this environment, high school English teacher Jon Balcerak is having a lot of success teaching hip hop.

Most teenagers are aware of and often listen to hip hop music. “When I play a song, it’s not like part of the student population gets it and everyone else is wondering what’s this strange music,” Balcerak said. Not only do kids everywhere listen to hip hop, but many are aware of hip hop culture too, including things like ciphers, where lyricists trade off rhyming in a collaborative circle. Balcerak has found there are important lessons about the give and take of ideas, sharing the floor, and listening embedded in a tradition that isn’t part of the culture he grew up in.

Balcerak doesn’t infuse hip hop in everything, but he does often hold up a verse or a rhyme as a valuable text to study. For example, when he teaches American literature he inevitably touches on transcendentalism and the writing of white men like Emerson and Thoreau. Alongside those older texts, Balcerak will ask students to examine a hip hop verse to show the ideas are present in pop culture as well.

“It’s very much the object of that lesson, it’s not a bridge to some canonical text,” Balcerak said. He’s found that teaching through hip hop is a good way to open up conversations with students about some of the social justice issues relevant to their lives today.

“This is culture and music and art that kids are already attuned to,” Balcerak said. “You get to meet them where they are.”

More than merely teaching with hip hop, thinking through these ideas has helped Balcerak to open himself up to his students, listen to their suggestions, trust them, and to see respect as a multidimensional gift that goes far beyond mere obedience.

“The first thing is about creating a culture of respect,” Balcerak said. “You can do that without any hip hop aspects at all.”

In fact, assuming kids like hip hop can actually be the opposite of respectful. George Sirrakos now teaches education at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and he coaches many teachers. He remembers one well-meaning teacher who assigned students to write a rap about evolution. He was impressed by her alternative assignment and asked her how she had come up with it. She replied that her students were of color so they all liked hip hop music.

When Sirrakos asked the class whether they liked hip hop, about three quarters said they listened to it and the rest named a variety of other types of music. But the students assumed the teacher had assigned them raps because of who they were.


“They’re not dumb; they can see through the instructors’ attempts,” Sirrakos said. In this case, the teacher made assumptions about her students using her own cultural lens, rather than getting to know her students well enough to be sure of her conclusion.