#NCTE18 Saturday: “Do your work.”

Urgency.

That’s what today created for me. A strong sense of urgency to change how we are doing things, collectively, for the benefit of every single one of our students. This urgency has been building from the other sessions I’ve attended (#DisruptTexts, I’m looking at you), but Dr. Christopher Emdin’s key note address today stoked it exponentially.

I’m going to write tonight to figure out a few things that I really want to have straight in my head by working to explain them here to you. Help me out if I am missing something or get one of the pieces wrong.

After the general session this morning, Jay and I stood on the edge of a hall outside of the auditorium with our heads spinning, thoughts reeling, processing what we had just witnessed in Emdin’s key note that was part church, part challenge, part pep talk, part academic argument, part appeal to his fellow teachers who care intensely for the kids who people our classrooms.

I’m one of “the rest of y’all too” that the title refers to. I ordered his book immediately and paid extra so that it will arrive on my doorstep in time for me to take it with me on my family’s road trip to Iowa next week for Thanksgiving.

I’ll start with this–my students’ response a few years ago to the name of a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched. I had never heard the term ratchet before, but they explained it to me as something like this:  

In the section of Emdin’s talk about this, he gave an excellent example to help us understand this term. He talked of someone he knows who said, “I get it! I have a friend who is ‘golf ratchet.’ He can play fine, but his form is kind of messed up, so I never bring him around my actual golf friends.” So Ratchet = anyone who’s form is outside of what is expected–meaning appearance, or behavior, or mannerisms. And often someone who is “ratchet” is assumed to not be particularly intellectual or academic.

He explained how sometimes schools expect only one way really for students to be academic and intellectual. It’s the way of the dominant culture, and it squeezes out students of color and tells them that their ways of interacting with ideas and the world are less than.

But like the “golf ratchet” example, they can play fine even though their form might be different.

We must make space for all “forms” of our students, all ways to BE a student, to interact with ideas, to move through a classroom. This is what Emdin asked of us today. And it’s about more than just our students–the norms and expectations that school expects simply mirror the norms and expectations of society. We see those norms and expectations asserting themselves in moments like when a Starbucks employee called 911 last spring on two humans who had been there for only two minutes without ordering a drink (they were waiting for a business meeting). Or we see them at play when a police officer shot a security guard a few days ago after he subdued a gunman in a bar. That security guard is dead now. He had a 9-month old child and another one on the way.

Lives are at stake. We must shift people’s perceptions. We must do this work in our classrooms to lift up our students to do this work in the world. Their voices have impact; we need only to use our classrooms and the literacy skills we teach to amplify them.

There’s more. Emdin pointed out that the term ratchet has been around for a while:

This is where the science teacher that Emdin is did a very ELA teacher thing–he took this process and used it as a metaphor to help us understand something about schooling. If we just keep doing what we’ve always done (i.e. asexual reproduction, the same teaching methods showing up again and again, generation after generation of teachers) the system will mutate harmfully and irreversibly. It will get worse and worse. It will harm students more and more.

But we can stop this. Emdin asked us to think about what in each of us is ratchet–what about us goes against what is expected? THAT, he said, is what we each need to find and lead from. It’s how we will push back at damaging societal notions of who is smart and who is worthy and who is intellectual and who is not.

This is how we shift perceptions. Starting with our own.

He left us chanting together–inspired by one of my heroes, Toni Morrison–that we will refuse to be consumed by or concerned by the gaze of the other. I.e., we must be strong to do what is right by our students, even if it goes against what others expect of us. Unapologetically.

Let’s do this.

“So get into your classroom on Monday and do your work.” –Christopher Emdin

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