Thursday was Brooklyn-Queens day, the NYC-specific holiday that excuses students from school, and gives the teachers a professional development day. Our school was attended the 7th annual Transfer School Conference along a thousand or so other transfer school educators. These are high schools that serve kids who needed to transfer from their original high school for many dozen reasons. Our schools are spread out all around the city, so there was lots of warm greetings among distant friends as we filed into the auditorium of Brandeis High School for the keynote.
My colleague and I were talking about the conference when I saw that the opening keynote would be delivered by Chris Emdin. Chris Emdin is a rising figure in education who recently secured a position at Columbia, speaking gigs at TED, SXSW Ed and every in between, and a New York Times best seller. When I saw his face looking out at me from the program, I immediately rolled my eyes. His research is great, and his #HipHopEd message is important, and I heard he was a dynamic speaker, but I was skeptical. On that morning, I figured he would be talking at an elementary level, giving the stock overview of his recent book. I had just left a session about technology that I already knew about, so internally I wasn’t very excited. However, I was probably as excited as most teachers are at a school PD. Whatever discernable excitement seemed to leave the room once the organziers called for people to stop their side conversations and find a seat.
Emdin stepped up to the podium, checked the sound and began to talk about the importance of the work of transfer schools, but also the need for us to really think about the work we do. He quickly won me over with his opening statement about the meaning of the word “Transfer”. As educators we need need to be constantly changing, or “tranferring” ourselves as we face new students, new challenges, and new opportunities. This process should specifically broaden our ability to allow students to bring their culture into the classroom and the school and see their culture validated and connected to learning. This all resonated with our school’s vision, and my colleague next to me was on board as well. It wasn’t clear if the rest of the crowd had gotten interested.
Emdin left the podium and began walking across the stage seeking to engage more listeners. He defined what he calls #HipHopEd. No, it didn’t involve having kids write lyrics about quadratics, or synthetic division, but more about teachers actively seeking to understand and embrace their student’s culture. He doesn’t profess to actually liking all of the music the kids listen to these days (he’s more into Biggie than Kodak Black), but he is aware of it. Educators should study the culture of their students and recognize when you’re operating from a “perch of superiority.” I took away that teachers quest for respectability in the classroom can quickly turn into a culture battle, when just as quickly it could turn into a chance to understand the cultural gap and seek to bridge it by bringing the student’s culture into the classroom As educators begin Emdin’s “Transfer” work, it sounds like the first place to start is with yourself, and with your relationship to the culture of the student’s you serve. He was very passionate at this point, but I took my eyes away to write the following in my Evernote: “HipHop Ed is about changing yourself to meet the needs of the community you serve.”
Emdin distilled his message with clearer and starker language as the talk went on. Like explaining something to a kid who keeps getting the wrong answers, no matter how many examples you create. Maybe we weren’t a good crowd. It seemed like no one disagreed with him, but we weren’t jumping on our feet either (at least not yet). It was probably that Emdin was really, genuinely worried that we wouldn’t leave there inspired. Deep down he knows the important work we do, and he was going to keep pumping us with energy until he was sure that we knew it too. This conference was not his only possible speaking gig for this PD day, and it certainly wasn’t the most lucrative. He jumped on this conference because he’d rather be with people doing this kind of work. His passion showed as he veered pretty far off script. We only went through 3 of his prepared slides! Instead he crafted new ways to describe the urgency of the problems we face and the solutions that are within our grasp. Stories, analogies, and metaphors kept coming rapid fire, followed by incrementally increasing applause.
Emdin then stepped down from the stage. At this point he was striding back and forth in front of the orchestra pit, pausing to emphasize key points. One point was about acts of violence done to students by our education system. The acts of violence that happen to students who leave the school system thinking there are limits on what they can become, that their community is garbage, and only some far away privileged group can pursue their dreams. This is not physical or verbal violence, but perhaps more damaging. These kind of messages can be heaped upon kids by some bad teachers, but also by unwitting good teachers. If you’re a good person, working for a bad system, and can’t direct students away from that systemic harm, then you’re condoning the ‘violence’ being done to these students. Good people can unwittingly do bad things, or lead to bad results. It’s a tough message to hear, but opens up a useful line of thinking. What kinds of things can I do as a teacher to disrupt the systems that hurt our students?
Emdin began walking further and further along the front of the stage and eventually up into the crowd. More and more of the crowd nodding along, more and more fits of applause. Someone even stood up and screamed!
By the time his talk came to a close, Emdin had the crowd’s support regardless of what people heard. This was very real because the last 5 minutes of his talked was peppered with interruptions that knocked out his audio for 10-15 seconds while someone tested the building’s PA system. He would be part way through delivering his final words when “BEEEEP….*click* ‘Test… Test… ‘ *click*.” Whoever was doing it did not know that it was during the keynote. Emding would have start back up again, summarizing everything he talked about, but before he could finish another interruption would stop his audio. We went through at least four of these interruptions, and each one was more visibly defeating. He got back on the stage, back behind the podium, and evem took off his microphone altogether. Then he said his final words and looked at the crowd, exhausted. He was then met with the longest standing ovation that I’ve ever seen at a PD.
Emdin didn’t sell any books after his session. If he had an organized book signing at a table nearby he would have sold dozens, but he wasn’t there for that. Instead he came from behind the stage and chatted it up with anybody who could talk to him until his ride came. The talk made me want to read Emdin’s new book after I finish all this other reading I have to do. That means he definitely won at least one educator over, because before today, I was not interested. After talking to teachers at my school the next day, I’m pretty sure he won over a hefty portion of the audience as well. Pretty cool PD.