Seven ways to ensure students bring their whole selves into the classroom

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Excerpted from Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success by Christopher Emdin (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Christopher Emdin

Choosing to be ratchetdemic is choosing to challenge respectability and what those who have power cherish the most—their power and the security it affords them. Being ratchetdemic is choosing to no longer be agreeable with your discomfort or the oppression of children through pedagogies that rob them of their genius, even in its most raw and unpolished forms. Most importantly, it is the restoration of the rights of the body to those who have been positioned as undeserving of them. By “the rights of the body,” I refer to seven rights articulated within Buddhist tradition. These are identified most clearly in the book Eastern Body, Western Mind, which, although not directly related to education, can serve as a guide for teaching and learning. The seven rights of the body identify what has been denied to students when they are robbed of the opportunity to be ratchetdemic.  These rights—to be here, to feel, to act, to love, to speak, to see, and to know—are at the essence of teaching and learning. Educators who anchor their teaching in the restoration of these rights to young people use their pedagogy as protest against the ways that emotional and psychological violence against young people has been normalized in schools.

The right to be here is the first and most fundamental right of the body. In education, it must be modified to the right to be here as you are. For that right to be granted, young people must feel as though their presence in the classroom, in whatever way they choose to express it, is always welcome. Ratchetdemic teaching begins by recognizing that students—especially Black students, who typically feel unwelcome in schools—have the right to be there. Their comfort and agency are compromised by the norms of the institution. Consequently, they feel as though school is not for them. this denial of the right to be here affects not just their comfort in the physical classroom but their ability to learn. The restoration of this right is a fundamental component of working with young people to become Ratchetdemic. It is accomplished in the classroom by explicitly stating when students walk into the school and/or the classroom for the first time that the entire enterprise of schooling is about them. Students must be told they have a right to be there, and they must be reminded that school is not about anything other than ensuring that they are whole and learning. This is where statements like, “This is your school,” “This is your classroom,” and “I work for you” become essential until it is understood by students that because of divine rights they have been born with, wherever their feet tread is a space they have a right to take up and are welcome.

The second right—the right to feel—is about ensuring that students have the space to express their emotions and the vocabulary to name what they are feeling. Human beings are born with the right to feel. It is an essential right to return to young people because in schools students are only afforded a very limited range of emotions. In the eyes of teachers, Black youth (in particular) can be only angry or agreeable. A number of actions that are indictors of a bevy of emotions are attributed to anger and addressed as though they are rooted in negative intentions. If Black or Brown students are curious or unclear with instructions, they are perceived as angry and questioning authority. If they are frustrated, sad, or pensive, they are perceived as angry. In fact, for too many students anything other than blind complicity is read as anger and confronted with the wrath of the institution and its operatives. The work of the educator then becomes working with young people to name their emotions—sharing the language that helps them to identify what and how they are feeling— while creating the space for these emotions to be felt and expressed without demonizing young people. This right also involves creating classroom spaces where young people can share their emotions about what is going on in the world without judgment and have a teacher who can model how to work through these emotions.

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The third right that must be restored to students in order for them to have the ideal learning space and be fully actualized is the right to act. Once students are afforded the right to feel, they must also have the right to act on how they feel. Being able to name how you feel must be accompanied by having the space to act on those emotions in order to feel free. As long as the act does not violate the rights of someone else, acting on an emotion is a way to feel affirmed and confirm the right to be present and take up space. In classrooms, creating space and time for the physical expression of emotions is essential. A moment in the class to scream and a corner in the class to move demonstrates a value for the students’ full self.

The fourth right of the body is the right to love and also be loved. This right is about agape love—the love of others for the good of humanity and betterment of society—and also about opening up the space for students to express a love for the people and things in their world that have significance to them even if they lack value in schools. The love of music, sports, and cultural artifacts and figures must be allowed in the classroom. The love of people and the space to express that love is also important. The work of ratchetdemic educators is to ensure that they teach about and with the artifacts and people that students love. Pedagogically, the right to love recognizes that there is no more compelling emotion than love, and there is no place where love is more needed than in learning. Activating the love young people have for phenomena that are perceived to be nonacademic in classrooms—and loving them enough to be creative and uncomfortable in uncovering the connections between those phenomena and academic content—transforms the nature of teaching and learning and restores a lost right to students.

The fifth right of the body is the right to speak. This right involves creating space where the voice of the student is not compromised or distorted in the pursuit of learning or being “better educated.” The right to speak is about being welcome to speak in one’s own tongue, dialect, or accent and honoring that right even if and when the discourse of power is different. The right to speak is not just about having voice but speaking truth to power. The ratchetdemic educator creates pathways and platforms for young people to speak about issues in the school, the community, and society to those who hold positions of power and authority. This is not about providing a voice to students. It is about amplifying their voices and providing them with access to those who hold power so that their voices can be heard. The right to speak requires creating curriculum that provides opportunities for young people to speak both within and beyond the classroom.

The sixth right is the right to see. It involves the recognition that students have the right to see things from a different perspective than the teacher or the school. The right to see is the right to have and express inner visions in the tradition of Stevie Wonder—a deep and reflective excavation of self as it relates to society and an expression of one’s vision of the world based on one’s reality. To allow young people to see things differently and then allow their visions to come to life in the classroom restores a faith in their own visions of the world and provides the classroom and the school with new approaches to transforming education to meet the needs of young people. The educator must consistently challenge students to envision the classroom and the world differently. The right to see is about activating the imagination and creating a classroom with young people that is closest to where they are most free to learn.

The seventh and final right is the right to know. In the classroom, this right is connected to the fact that schools deny Black children the right to know about themselves, their history, their legacy, and the causes for the inequities they live under. The right to know is compromised by the low expectations that teachers hold of students and the belief that students are not prepared to know about the inequities of the world or ill equipped to understand what is perceived to be rigorous academic content. The right to know is also the right to be challenged academically and to have all the information needed to understand the world shared with you. I argue that once all the other rights of the body have been provided, youth thrive when they have the right to know because their full selves are affirmed and free to accept and pursue knowledge.

Author photo by Laura Yost (Courtesy of Beacon Press)

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Christopher Emdin is professor and program director of Science Education 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 the Science Genius program, he is the author of the New York Times bestseller For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too and Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. You can following him on Twitter at @chrisemdin.