a headshot of christopher emdin

Photo credit: Laura Yost

Columbia University's Christopher Emdin firmly believes that public education needs to be reimagined so that students can “display their academic brilliance without sacrificing their identities.” That belief has been at the heart of Emdin’s work championing the use of hip hop to teach science and encouraging teachers to employ “reality pedagogy" to reach students "where they really are." In his newest book, Ratchetdemic, Emdin urges educators and school leaders to “bridge the seemingly disparate worlds of the ivory tower and the urban classroom.”

Ratchet is a slang term associated with loud, outspoken, and lowbrow qualities, often with racial, gender, and socioeconomic overtones. In recent years, however, Emdin and other scholars have reclaimed the term, recasting it through a lens of creativity, authenticity, and individuality.

Emdin told ASBJ’s Associate Editor Michelle Healy the goal of ratchetdemic education is to convey to students that “you can be as ratchet as you are genius.” Ultimately, he says, we want students “to develop and express their true genius and live as their true selves.”

Why is the time right for ratchetdemic education?

Across multiple domains, we are seeing a generation of brilliant, talented people who are unapologetically wearing who they are. Education must catch up to this world. The pandemic revealed many things about education, including that we can function without the existing school culture that we’ve been tethered to. It just isn’t working for many students. We can do well with a new model. I think ratchetdemic is that model.

How is it supportive of social-emotional learning (SEL)?

Often, students feel they must act a certain way to be seen as smart; they must present a certain identity to be considered worthy of teaching. If I must be something other than myself to be seen as worthy of pursuing knowledge, you’re telling me that being myself is not good enough. Once young people don’t feel worthy, their psyche is broken. If we value SEL, we must allow young folks to be socially and emotionally comfortable and confident as their authentic selves. We must convey the message of reclaiming all aspects of ourselves in the pursuit of learning.

the cover of ratchetdemic

Is your message more freedom for students?

No. The message is reimagining the system, reimagining the possibilities. For students, ratchetdemic says be you, be free, and be excellent. The same is true for ratchetdemic teachers who love themselves and their students for who they are while setting high academic standards for students. Teachers are more effective if they find their own authentic and ratchet selves in the pursuit of knowledge.

Can school leaders benefit from this approach?

For young folks to learn, classrooms must be alive, and educators and school boards have a responsibility to create a model of that type of excitement and learning. Learning requires motivation and the absence of rigor mortis. I want ratchetdemic school boards that don’t take on the trappings of Fortune 500 board meetings because we’re talking about the lives of human beings. School boards must model for schools what it’s like to move with fervor and verve, excitement, and joy.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)

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