Equity and Access

Chris Emdin at APAC 2018: Activating Brilliance & Challenging Respectability Politics in the Classroom

Sometimes, it takes a special educator to successfully tap into a student’s potential and boost learning.

My family understood the respectability politics of education. That’s why my mom ironed my school clothes at the start of every week, why my pleats were always perfect, and my shoes always shined. In my mother’s eyes, I had to look the part of a scholar. 

Respectability politics can be the difference between a student being considered gifted or labeled unprepared. Sometimes, it takes a special educator to successfully tap into a student’s potential and boost learning. Auditi Chakravarty, Vice President of SpringBoard and AP Programs at the College Board, and former English teacher was one of those educators. Chakravarty shared how the decision to teach Shakespeare’s Macbeth in both her regular and advanced track world literature courses, gave one student—who wouldn’t normally be considered advanced—the confidence he needed to thrive.  

“Equity isn’t about treating everyone the same. But I do believe that equity is about treating everyone with the respectful expectation that they can be successful and then to give them the opportunity to try that.” 

Christopher Emdin, tenured professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and creator of #HipHopEd, followed with a powerful talk on promoting diversity and equity in the classroom.  

“First and foremost, when we talk about ‘advanced placement’, some folks have an ‘advanced placement’ before they walk into your classroom. An ‘advanced placement’ in the classroom often times comes from an ‘advanced placement’ socioeconomically and access-wise,” he said. “So the reality is that it’s not about the young folks and their potential per se, it’s about who has had ‘advanced placement’ in a world beyond the classroom and that we, as educators, just replicate those processes in the classroom.” 

The one space that can overcome the obstacles society has constructed for youth is the classroom, he said. He argues that a teacher who can ignite the passion of the learner can clear a student’s path to success. Instead of practicing ineffective methods, he urges teachers to adopt a reality-based pedagogy, which is grounded in the experiences of the learner. It’s not about teaching intellect, it’s about activating the genius that students already possess, he said.  

Rigorous instruction and culturally relevant lessons are not mutually exclusive. “If I want to teach a young person to decode complex text, I could have him decode a Jay-Z lyric,” said Emdin. But first, educators must suspend their biases against the use of hip-hop in an educational context to activate the genius within young people, he said.  He cites the rap cypher—a circular gathering of people, who take turns freestyle rapping about elements of their surrounding environment—as an example of intellectual expression among urban youth.  

Emdin calls on educators to challenge the status quo, forge deep relationships with students and foster an inclusive environment that encourages them to showcase their brilliance—in all its forms. 

“You have the flexibility to be able to reimagine what the AP course looks like to match the needs of the demographics you have in front of you.”