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Embracing the Whole Student, Being Ratchetdemic

Reimagining what teaching and learning looks like when we allow authenticity to happen across the board.
Chris Emdin

Chris Emdin wants education to transform lives, but until we fully accept students as themselves in teaching and learning that it will stay the same.

“We are part of a system that's constructed itself based on the notion that not everybody deserves it. And it's because of that, because of this facing of history, because of the need for a radically new future that I propose a new approach to teaching and learning that is about being ratchetdemic, which is about welcoming the aspects of young folks' lives or particular populations' experiences that don't fit in academia,” he says. 

Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College, is reimagining what teaching and learning looks like when we allow authenticity to happen across the board. In this episode of the EdCast, Emdin discusses what it means to be rachetdemic and embrace the whole student identity.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Christopher Emdin is revolutionizing education with a simple idea, to make schools truly welcoming for all students, no matter their race, class, gender, or orientation. He believes that public education was never designed for many of these students. Christopher is a professor from Teachers College, who has long focused on issues of race, culture, and inequality in education. He's now introducing a new educational model to help students and teachers celebrate ratchet identity in the classroom. Through this work, he's reimagining what teaching and learning would look like if we could break free of the system that constrains it, and instead be ratchetdemic. I couldn't wait to hear more about this new philosophical approach to education.

Christopher Emdin: The existing approach to teaching and learning, or to education, is so stuck in an era where black and brown children were not supposed to be educated, where issues of race, class, and diversity were not part of the conversation in how we prepared young folks to be able to do well in the world or to be trained, where public education, although described as for everyone, it plays out in ways where it wasn't for the newest immigrants. It wasn't for those who were socioeconomically deprived. There's a larger narrative about upward mobility in education, except for if you were part of that class it was not ever supposed to make it from beyond that. And although we don't say it out loud, although we don't name it, we are still stuck in those age old notions about what the purpose of education is. And although we say that we want transformation of lives through education, we are part of a system that's constructed itself based on the notion that not everybody deserves it. And it's because of that, because of this facing of history, because of the need for a radically new future that I propose a new approach to teaching and learning that is about being ratchetdemic, which is about welcoming the aspects of young folks' lives or particular populations' experiences that don't fit in academia, that don't fit in education. The raw, the expressive, the authentic, the powerful but not welcome. I'm calling for a radical reimagining of what welcoming looks like in teaching and learning, and I think that requires opening up the floodgates to allow folks to just show up as themselves.

Jill Anderson: Can anyone become a ratchetdemic?

Christopher Emdin: Absolutely. The fascinating thing about education is that everyone's not themselves.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Christopher Emdin: We are talking about black and brown children in urban America. We are talking about LGBTQ populations, but we're also talking about teachers, and principals, and school district personnel. We all show up to this thing called education based on an idea of what we think our role should be. So teachers go through graduate schools of education that teach them how to be a teacher and don't teach them how to be themselves. School leaders go to become principals or district personnel based on what school leadership should look like, based on what I read in that John Maxwell book. Young folks come to school and they are being expected to perform attention or intelligence. And so my argument is that everyone shows up to school being something they are not, and because of that, schooling becomes a sort of like fabrication. This inauthentic place where we are all trying on an identity that may not necessarily fit. And to be ratchetdemic is to say, look, this is who I am. I am a science geek who loves Star Wars and loves hip-hop and loves jazz. And I'm a rapper, and I'm a professor, and I'm a scholar, and I'm a thinker, and I'm a scientist. And I can be all those things at once. And once I feel like I'm welcome as all of myselves, I can model for young folks that they can show up as themselves, and then we can start this beautiful thing called teaching and learning.

Jill Anderson: What does it mean to embody a ratchetdemic identity in schools?

Christopher Emdin: To be ratchetdemic is to have no part in starving the authentic self, while still maintaining high academic standards and high academic rigor. It's to exist in a space where we don't decide between binaries the society has constructed around what it looks like to be smart. To be ratchetdemic is to be free. And when I say free is to be free in expression, is to be free in thought, but also to be free in the pursuit of knowledge through whatever pathway makes sense for someone. So a ratchetdemic person doesn't walk into a classroom and say, how does being smart look like? How does being smart dress like? How should I raise my hand? Or how do I need to be complicit for the sake of making somebody else comfortable? It begins with saying, what do I need to be comfortable enough to learn, and then, how do I not lower academic expectations, lower rigor, lower standards, lower benchmarks, but recognize that the path to reaching those things looks drastically different in the way that it's been presented.

Jill Anderson: Anyone who's gone to school can relate to that feeling of, you go to school and you stay in your lane and you're quiet and you do what you're supposed to do, and then there is kids who maybe diverge from that. And I related to that as a kid who was just quiet, stayed in my lane, did what I was supposed to do, and it made start thinking a little bit about, "Gee, what could I have experienced if things were different? What would education have looked like?"

Christopher Emdin: Education has become preparedness for complicity at the expense of us pursuing our truest intellectual goals. And that's what I want to erase. I want to erase this notion that teaching and learning has to look and sound and feel a certain way. And I also want to play out the idea that ratchetness takes many forms. Yes, I chose the word ratchetdemic because it's a merging of being ratchet and academic. I was intentional about utilizing a colloquial slang word and merging that with being academic. I understand that for some folks to be ratchet is to be loud or to be abrasive, but there are variations in ratchet.

To me ratchetness is about authenticity. I write in my work about golf ratchet. One can be suburban ratchet. One can be urban ratchet. One can be hip-hop ratchet. One can be quiet and ratchet, believe it or not. Whereas like I'm just soaking in information and then I'm expressing myself through words or thoughts and ideas and ways that don't look like they are very visible, but it's about this idea of creating spaces for authenticity, where one's true and core identity is allowed to be welcome in the classroom space and leveraged in the pursuit of learning.

Jill Anderson: So something that American schooling has been so challenged by is, and we hear about this a lot, there's no one size fits all. There's no same learner, but in reality there's very little room for individual in curriculum. So how do we flip that and get to a place where we can appreciate and empower individual students for who they are?

Christopher Emdin: I just want to highlight, A, the hypocrisy in that. Multiple forms of learning but you have schools looking exact same way. It's the height of hypocrisy. But I also want to highlight the misperception that for you to be able to have a school that meets the needs for diverse populations, it requires a certain form of standardization. I just think it's a false notion that we've attached ourselves to that isn't real. We can standardize the methods for allowing folks to express their multiple selves but we can't standardize the expectations or the benchmarks that we expect everyone to meet around who they are persona wise, right? And so for me it's really about deconstructing false binaries. And it's about creating space for us to feel comfortable in the interstitial spaces, where things are murky and things are not quite clear, because it doesn't mean that learning can't happen.

For example, a ratchetdemic classroom is one that may look differently during first period and fifth period in the same school. That the academic expectations can remain the same but the teacher has developed a certain nimbleness. I like to use the word freestylability because I'm a hip-hop head. In hip-hop culture, the best MCs know how to freestyle. The best rappers know how to be able to utilize what they've learned and what they've planned and still be able sort of dance in the beauty of the moment to make sure that all who are the audience can feel connected.

That's what I want teachers to aspire to. To be nimble, to be able to freestyle. To be able to write the most strict and structured and well designed lesson plan that says, "At minute two I'm doing on this, at minute three I'm doing this," and then when you get in the classroom be willing to let that lesson plan go, because the reality is that you plan well so that when you teach you can move without planning. And so that's the essence of being ratchetdemic. It's about the welcoming of not just discomfort, but the necessary unsteadiness that is good teaching. To be comfortable with that is to be ratchetdemic as an educator.

Jill Anderson: What have you heard from educators about this?

Christopher Emdin: What oftentimes happens is that people misconstrue my approach to mean we don't plan, or to mean we have no structure. We just go in there in a classroom and make things up, and that's very far from the truth. In fact I'm a firm believer in planning. It's the strength of my planning that allows me to be able to let my plan go. If I had no plan at all I could not freestyle, I could not be ratchet, I could not be ratchetdemic and expressive. Even for this talk, I had to make sure I went back and went over my notes in order to keep things I wanted to get across. Jill is so brilliant and smart. She might ask you this question or that question. I sort of kind of prepared myself for that, but then now I'm here with you, I'm not thinking about those questions anymore, I'm sitting in the moment because I've been prepared.

And so, teachers, I always say, I'm not saying, "Just wing it," I'm saying, "Be so well prepared that you can wing it." And it's not even winging it, it's be so well prepared that you can bend yourself to the particular needs of the students because you've allowed them to feel comfortable in being able to give their full and authentic selves, and you are now equipped to be able to pull from that authentic self in what you do in the classroom, in how you teach.

Jill Anderson: And how do we push back and try new things in a classroom acknowledging that there's risk, acknowledging that it might not work out? What do we do there?

Christopher Emdin: One of my favorite quotes is by biologist and Buddhist, Francisco Varela. The quote is, "Ethics is closer to wisdom than cognition." And the reason why I love that quote is because we are in an era where in response to a call for anti-racism, and cultural relevance, and abolitionist teaching, or reality pedagogy, whatever the things you want to name, in response to all the things that are coming down the pipe to educators, they are ingesting it and saying, "Oh my gosh. I have to do these things."

So it's like, how do I create the best anti-racist lesson? How do I create a... It's so cognitive that it's not wisdom. It's not a response to being bathed in the beauty of the philosophies that are about doing right by young people, it's more about being responsive to the educational trend. And educators they are being sort of mentally and emotionally incarcerated by this pursuit of wokeness as though wokeness is a cognitive ideal rather than a state of being in consciousness, which is just being a weight to the larger dynamics in the world that may harm young people.

So my approach is this, just because you read that anti-racist book does not mean that you have to start doing slavery lessons in classrooms tomorrow because just reading that book doesn't mean that you're equipped or prepared to understand the complexities of that phenomenon. And it's about taking the time to sit with the work. I read that book. I was inspired. I want to read another book and be inspired in another way. I want to delve down even more. I want to, most importantly, understand who I am and why I'm responding so viscerally to hearing about this thing in this way. Why am I responding that way? Before you take on the work of someone else that is supposed to be doing the work of... Look, you can't be culturally relevant if you haven't been culturally relevant to yourself. You can't be anti-racist till you understand the racist practices and the white supremacist ideologies that are a piece of your consciousness, even in your pursuit of goodness in the world.

And I think we don't give folks the grace to do the self-work because we say, we are in this point in time, respond, and then folks go out there and screw it up because they're not ready to do that work yet. So it's about self-work. It's about bathing in the beauty of the moment in time you're in for yourself before you start constructing lessons on something you're not keenly aware of yet. It's about not playing woke Olympics, where it's like, "You're culturally relevant. I'll up you, and I'll be anti-racist and culturally relevant." We are in this moment in time where we are so preoccupied with linguistic allegiances to freedom language that we've not committed ourselves emotionally and psychologically. Our souls aren't quite ready to deal with the deep work, and we have to do the deep work first before we start responding to what's going on in the world.

Jill Anderson: And educators are a part of that, I'm going to call it a sanitized, very white, deeply entrenched system. You talk about them doing the work on themselves. Do you think that teacher ed programs really tap into that?

Christopher Emdin: They are not. That's why my work in teacher education persists and why I'm so fervently in pursuit of reimagining, not just K-12 education, but how teachers are prepared to teach. That one class in urban and multicultural education is not going to prepare you to go out there and understand what it means when young folks from these spaces are in your classroom and responding in real time to phenomena in their lives. And they are responding viscerally and angrily to you and you're like, "Well, I took the urban class. I need to care about the black and brown kids." That's not going to help you when you don't understand how their life is playing out and what that looks like.

And so for me, in my teacher preparation work, and how I work with teachers, we not only do self-work, for them to write about their stories and their histories. When was the first time that you encountered a black person? When was the first relationship that you had with urban America? Was it through a rap video, or was it through something that your grandma said, or was it through... I want them to write about that, and I want them to play that out, and I want them to understand how they've breathed in these larger structures as it relates to schooling and whiteness that they have to be able to make sense of. I want them to understand that they've not yet arrived. And no one arrives at... In the words of Maxine Greene, "I am who I am not yet." I don't arrive at being an effective educator in contemporary America, I am on a persistent journey.

That also requires us to understand how we create space for mistakes. That if somebody's enacting a practice that is intentionally dehumanizing for other people, then they need to be held accountable. However, if someone is in the pursuit of doing the right work and has a gaffe, there must be space for second chances. That we cannot inherit this idea of cancellation and erasure that comes from larger Americana in this time and apply that to the process of teaching and learning, that is about asking questions and is about making mistakes. And teachers need to be able to make mistakes just like young folks need to be able to make mistakes. And we have to understand what the intention is behind the mistakes that are made.

And then most importantly, I need us to understand that teaching is hard. We are oftentimes so dismissive of the art and science of teaching and learning. You have to understand psychology, and sociology, performance. You have to have voice control. You have to have a command of your body. You have to know how to be able to sort of describe ideas with metaphor and analogy and story. You have to know how you pace around the classroom, the way you walk, how you talk. You have to ensure that you're bringing your authentic self but also not too much where you erase the kids' authentic selves. You have to be able to model how to make mistakes but also work with young folks to overcome mistakes. And I think we've lost all that nuance.

I work now with Lincoln Center for the Performance Arts, and one of my chief strategies or work with them is to help society, the world, understand that teaching is a performance art. There's no space in schools of education to teach teachers how to perform. That's essential to being effective as an educator. And so I think that we've lost sight of all the complex dimensions of teaching and learning in this pursuit of standardizing what it means to be a good teacher, and we must return back to a place of nuance. We must return back to a place of developing a more complex and robust ratchetdemic identity.

Jill Anderson: I don't know where to go from there. That's so well said. But I do want to talk a little bit about an example that you discuss in your work, which is this decision a school made to stop a rap-based program that you developed. And it was stopped because it was deemed as being too loud, too disruptive. It was replaced with, I think, test-based preparation. And one of the interesting things to come out of that was, the students who spent a few weeks participating in the rap-based program performed better on the test. So what does it mean to reassess what has academic value and what doesn't?

Christopher Emdin: This is a huge question, and it's one that I'm still grappling with so I don't know if I have the right answer.

Jill Anderson: There's no right answer.

Christopher Emdin: There is no right answer. I will say this though, I am less concerned, and folks will probably be upset at me about this, and they'll critique me about this, and they'll write you, and they'll send me angry emails and it's fine, I'm less concerned about the assessments right now. The assessments are biased. They are problematic. There are things that are wrong with them. It is what it is. I am more concerned about the approaches to instruction employed to get young folks to be successful on the established assessments.

I can get a young person to do well on an exam, in physics, in chemistry, in whatever else it is, whatever the test, even with the problems in the test, if I let them enjoy the subject and the process that is required to be successful in the assessment. So the issue is the test, yes, but I'm less concerned about the test, I'm more concerned about the test prep. I'm less concerned about the assessment, I'm more concerned about how you think a young person will be successful on the assessment by boring them to death and making them not like the subject or the exam.

I can get a young person to be successful on an exam that is problematic if I make them believe that they got something to prove to the exam makers. Like, "Listen, them suckers wrote this test. This test is trash, it's biased against you, but guess what? We're going to make sure we let them cats know that despite the problems in the test, we're going to do what we need to do to show them that we can do it. Are you all with me or not?" And now I've created this sort of burning in the soul of a young person to even through the labor of being successful and that process will put in that work to prove the test makers wrong.

That works better than, kids come in. Here's the test prep. Question one through four. Check out what's wrong. I'd rather spend the time on convincing them on the need to overcome the obstacle that is the exam and to prove the test makers wrong than bore them to death and then have them be unsuccessful in the exam.

And so I want educators to critique the assessments. That work needs to happen. But when you're in the classroom every day, critiquing the assessments ain't going to fix the fact that it's the benchmark and our young folks got to be successful on them. And again, people might not like what I say but it is what it is. My whole thing is, we're going to turn up on these tests, but we're going to have fun doing it, we're going to share life doing it, we're going to have joy doing it, we're going to prove them suckers wrong while we do it. The energy in the class is going to be so lit, so beautiful, so magical that they are going to be so turned on to learning that it doesn't matter what the assessment is anymore. So it's like, I'm not going to bore you to death for you to fail a test.

Look, let me just keep it a buck with you. And what I mean by this is I'm going to be... Keep it a buck, i.e., just be completely a 100% and honest with you. These kids are not going to do well on an assessment anyway with the way you've been doing it, you might as well have some fun then. We are in some places where the test scores can't get any lower. You're going to celebrate a one-point increase, a two-point increase, a one-point decrease. I mean, at this point, we might as well see what it looks like when we have fun learning. Because learning for me is about passion, joy, and commitment, and if those things are absent, there is no learning.

Jill Anderson: It's safe to say that there is a lot of joy missing from learning today.

Christopher Emdin: I just want smiles, Jill.

Jill Anderson: So what can students and parents do to claim their right to learn and find joy in that?

Christopher Emdin: The first thing I would say is this, remind your child that they are a learner. Remind your child... We sometimes gloss over this. In my work I talk about the employment of the rights of the body that pulls from Buddhist tradition and how essential they are for contemporary schooling. Like affirmation is such a significant piece of good teaching. When I call those kids mathematical magicians, I call them science geniuses. My program is called Science Genius for a reason. I had kids rapping about science content but I didn't call them science rappers, I called them science geniuses, because once they believe that they are genius then they walk into their genius. So for parents, for teachers, the first step is in the pedagogy of affirmation, the pedagogy of restitution. Giving back to young folks all the belief in self that they've been robbed of by going through contemporary schooling. It's the first step.

The second piece is to model the fun of learning. A kid is not going to like reading if they don't see people in their lives reading. Not reading for the test but reading for pleasure or reading for joy. So teaching is closer to modeling than it is to telling. So we want to create a space where we are modeling for young folks the sort of attributes of a good learner and we are having fun in the process.

Another thing I would say is, I really believe in environment. We could talk all day long about good pedagogy, and joy, and passion, but you cannot activate joy and passion in a lifeless structure. What do your classrooms look like? What do your classrooms smell like? What's on the walls? What's in the building? Again, I want to just return us back to the essence of teaching and learning that is about invoking joy by ensuring that both the educator, the building, and the student walk into a place that activates joy and passion. So for parents and teachers, I'm like, reimagine what the classroom looks like as well.

I just did a project called the Collider Classroom that was about imagining what a post-pandemic classroom could look like, with huge screens on a wall and green space in the classroom. And people were like, "What does this have to do with learning? How are the kids going to pass..." Has everything to do with learning, stupid. If the kids don't feel welcome in the environment, they are not going to learn.

I'm about a returning back to the essence and then creating an environment where folks can be ratchetdemic, where they feel comfortable as they are, or feel motivated to sort of reach high standards and benchmarks and pursuits by any means necessary. By reimagining teaching, by reimagining what learning looks like, reimagining the environment, reimagining the structure of schools, reimagining the nature of relationships, reimagining what's welcome in classrooms.

And then teaching teachers to learn how to welcome things that they are not comfortable with. Like if my pants hang a little low, by the way, I'm still ready to learn. If I'm really concerned about what I look like and my outfit and my Jordans, by the way, I'm still ready to learn. All these things that we think equate to a non-preparedness for learning, that actually have nothing at all to doing with if I'm ready, because if my soul is ready to learn, it don't matter what I look like or sound like or dress like, I'm there to learn from you, and so model what that looks like for me.

Jill Anderson: Oh, Christopher, this is just lots of wonderful things to think about and consider. I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Christopher Emdin: It's a pleasure to share some words and thoughts and ideas. I want to apologize for my unbridled enthusiasm. Can I end with this?

Jill Anderson: Sure.

Christopher Emdin: Because I don't want to end this podcast with a doom and gloom and education is broken. I want us all who are listening to understand that we are in this moment where there's a space for radical new possibilities. That the things that we need to do to transform education actually doesn't cost us that much. It's about a decision to create a new type of teaching and learning, and if we do that, the future is bright and the possibilities are endless.

Jill Anderson: Christopher Emdin is an associate professor of Science and Education at Teachers College at Columbia University. He's also the associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education, and the director of the Program and Science Education. His latest book is Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success.

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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