Challenging the Status Quo: Taking a Closer Look at the Classroom

By Kaitlin Levesque, Network Facilitator

During and following the RISE Network Fall 2019 Convening, educators engaged with the Student Support Inquiry Framework (SSIF) to investigate variables — student, home, educator, classroom, and district — that influence student success. Educators have the unique ability to shape and influence a number of these factors, especially what students experience in school and in classrooms. As we consider ways to deepen the RISE Network learning agenda, the RISE team has been exploring the ideas of two trailblazers who are encouraging educators to critically examine how they approach their work: Dr. Christopher Emdin in his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and Joe Feldman on the Harvard EdCast podcast, Grading for Equity. These two educators highlight the persistent inequities and implications that may result even from well-intentioned educator actions, while offering up an alternative vision for how educators can use engaging instruction and formative feedback to create a classroom experience that empowers students.

Dr. Emdin’s ideas on “reality pedagogy” explore how educators can engage students through empowerment. Emdin argues that before we as educators can engage students in the curriculum, we must first understand if we are inviting students to show up to class as their authentic selves. Emdin suggests the personas that students emulate outside of the classroom should be welcomed into the classroom, otherwise we create a dissonance between the students we expect to be present in class, and the personalities they embody outside of the classroom. He suggests that a powerful tool for engaging students authentically is for educators to involve them in the evaluation of existing educational structures and systems, to ensure the curriculum and classroom are designed to be conducive to their needs. His approach encourages educators and students to build explicit and specific co-created and shared understandings of what success looks like within a classroom such as, what does it mean to come to class prepared. 

Feldman provides similar thought-provoking ideas. He asserts that many grading policies fail to evaluate students on growth or mastery of material, and instead penalize or reward students for their ability to comply with expectations for assignment submission and classroom behaviors, as determined by policies and beliefs at the district, school, and classroom levels. Feldman argues that this compliance perpetuates disparities that many educators work to dismantle. In the podcast he states, “[Educators] do great work in thinking about culturally responsive pedagogy and diverse curriculum and really trying to listen to our students; and yet we are using practices that undermine those things and actually work against all the great equity work we are doing.”

As RISE educators committed to improving student outcomes, we can use the SSIF and thought-provoking ideas such as Dr. Emdin’s and Joe Feldman’s to reflect on all the factors, including our own actions, that enable or impede student success.