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September 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 1

Seven Cs for Effective Teaching

Building strong relationships with students can pave the way to academic rigor. These seven strategies from Reality Pedagogy can help.
School Culture
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One of the most popular terms in contemporary education is academic rigor. School leaders from across the United States use the phrase to signal that they're holding all teachers and students accountable to unwavering standards or expectations around academic achievement. The chief goal of an academically rigorous curriculum is to challenge students to reach expectations outside their comfort zones.
Rigor also becomes the way schools justify very rigid and hyper-structured approaches to teaching and learning. If a particular approach helps a significant number of students in one school or district meet an academically rigorous standard, we often assume that it can help all students across a wide array of schools. School leaders may fail to see that the results we get from students in some schools are often more reflective of the relationships those students have with their schools and teachers than of the effectiveness of a particular approach to teaching.

Relationships Matter

Good relationships between teachers and students are more likely to arise in schools in which teachers and students share a similar culture. The teaching approach that results simply reflects what works for both parties. In schools in which teachers and students don't share similar cultures, those relationships may arise less frequently because the teaching approach is often culturally incongruous with students' core identities. Take, for example, schools in which teachers are predominantly white and students are racially and ethnically diverse. Schools with this type of demographics are widespread in urban districts. For teachers who may be unfamiliar with the everyday realities of youth who don't look, talk, dress, or act like the teacher, a natural relationship to students is hampered by the teachers' unfamiliarity with their culture. In schools like these, students may often be only superficially engaged in the content or may get good grades, but they may not function on an academic level that maximizes their potential. Most times, they are underperforming, and the school cannot target the reason why. I argue that the absence of a relationship that is rooted in shared culture impedes many students from reaching higher levels of academic rigor.
Whatever the environment, school leaders play an important role in developing the kinds of relationships that foster academic rigor. One model that I developed—reality pedagogy—supports this work. It recognizes that academically rigorous teaching and learning are deeply personal; it begins with the understanding that a school's approach to teaching is unlikely to meet student needs unless students' cultures, backgrounds, and experiences are reflected in the curriculum. When students see themselves in the curriculum, they develop stronger relationships with both their teachers and peers—and with the content as well.

Seven Strategies That Work

So how can we build strong relationships with students who have diverse learning skills, styles, and backgrounds? Seven strategies, which I call the seven Cs, can help.

C 1. Co-generative Dialogues

Co-generative dialogues—or cogens—are structured exchanges in which students and their teacher co-develop strategies for instruction that focus on the students' socioemotional and academic needs. The dialogues enable open communication concerning both the teacher's and students' perspectives on schooling.
Ideally, cogens should take place outside of traditional classroom lessons, such as before school or during lunch. The teacher invites four students who are otherwise not connected to one another to join the group; they may be from different racial or ethnic groups, or they may perform at different academic levels. The point is, they will have different relationships both to the content being taught and to the teacher.
In the classic example of a cogen, a teacher asks four students to meet after school—a student who has high exam grades, another who has failed a few exams, a student who is highly verbal in class, and another who rarely says anything. The teacher thanks the students for coming and tells them that they are part of an advisory group to help the teacher be more effective. The teacher assures the students that their perspectives are valuable and sets down three simple rules: no voice is more important than another, everyone will have equal turns to talk, and all students will create a plan of action together for improving their next class.
Initially, students respond with apprehension about working with unfamiliar students. However, as the teacher encourages them to participate, these students start making suggestions. Before long, they develop strategies for improving the class on the basis of their unique needs and experiences. For example, they may co-create a plan for the teacher to move around the class more often and to spend more time talking with all students rather than a select few.
These discussions foster positive relationships among students and between students and their teacher. Strong relationships foster positive emotions, which create a more powerful connection to the content. Students will likely take more pleasure in working with the content because they're emotionally connected to it. They will also connect more strongly to the person teaching the content, and to the space where it's taught. By consistently having these discussions, teachers connect with their students in ways that allow for more powerful teaching to happen in the classroom. Further, teachers learn to mold instruction to the needs of all their students.
The role of the administrator is to introduce cogens to teachers, and then model this practice. For instance, a principal can invite teachers to a cogen to discuss how to improve the school's leadership. It is imperative that administrators support teachers as they enact cogens, such as by providing a snack or meal for the teacher and students and by commending students for their participation. By doing so, school administrators create a context that fosters powerful relationships and sets the stage for students to engage with content in an academically rigorous way.

C 2. Co-teaching

To develop positive relationships around academic achievement, students have to believe that the school and its representatives see value in what they bring to classrooms. This includes not only recognizing the talents, skills, or cultural practices that students possess, but also positioning these gifts as valuable enough to teach, learn, and practice in the classroom. Co-teaching allows students to demonstrate their gifts, such as those of an athlete, beatboxer, or dancer. It requires the teacher to be creative enough to make connections between those gifts and the content. For instance, a teacher make incorporate the physics of basketball, the biology of the beatbox, and the history of dance into lessons. When students can teach what they love and see it valued academically, we create new connections to academically rigorous content.
School administrators who want to foster academic rigor must create an environment that consistently celebrates students' gifts. They must ensure that the school features events that honor nonacademic, as well as academic, learning. For example, I have witnessed schoolwide rap competitions about rigorous science content, art exhibitions that feature student work, and even student-led video game nights. Once youth are celebrated for being themselves, we set the context for classroom co-teaching.
By co-teaching, I mean that students are charged with preparing lesson plans, designing assignments, and teaching a class in a way that reflects who they are. Students may choose to hold a class during which their fellow students don't take many notes or one that has music playing in the background. The teacher observes each student's teaching, noting any effective strategies the student is using in view of enacting them later on. The goal here is for the teacher to recognize how youth share information and to incorporate elements of the students' teaching into the teacher's strategies.
In successful relationships outside the classroom, the people in the relationship typically see equal value in one another. In traditional classrooms, however, teachers have most of the power because of their role as teacher. This power imbalance silences certain students. By distributing some of their power to students by allowing them to teach, teachers can build strong and respectful relationships with students. This increases student engagement with content and builds a path toward academic rigor.

C 3. Cosmopolitanism

Allowing students to feel as though they're not just guests in the school but active participants in how these spaces operate is a powerful step in connecting them to academic content. As students take on certain operational aspects of the school and classroom, they develop relationships with one another around making the school or classroom work.
In what I call a cosmopolitan school, all stakeholders—including students and parents—design strategies and take on roles to help the school operate properly. Students adopt these roles while concurrently learning content. For example, in a science class, students might organize a laboratory, design an experiment, assist with grading, prepare study notes for the class, or send e-mail reminders of assignments to peers. Students receive academic class credit for their work. Taking on such roles directly affects how deeply students engage with the content.

C 4. Context

Educators need to embed themselves to some extent in the communities their students live in and then incorporate elements of that community into the classroom. This goes well beyond talking with students about where they're from; it moves toward a cultural immersion in the community. It also pushes back against traditional approaches to school-community relations that focus on inviting the community to the school without going to the community. That approach sends a message to the community (and to the students who are part of that community) that the school holds all the value and power in the relationship.
In the pedagogy I envision, the school and its representatives are responsible for connecting to the community. Educators are called on to study and learn from the community context, just as students are called on to learn content. In this process, the school leader organizes staff visits to places in the community that students value. Educators may determine which places to visit by polling students about the best restaurants, clothing stores, and supermarkets.
This study is informal and occurs simply by being present in the community over the course of the academic year. For example, a teacher might discover how important a local basketball tournament is by hearing about it from community members. The teacher doesn't explicitly tell students that their community and culture have value. Instead, the teacher conveys that message by attending the tournament and referencing it in class. This practice draws students to the content and builds strong teacher-student relationships.

C 5. Content

A focus on content means that teachers use every opportunity to model for students what it looks like to grapple with a subject—not as an expert, but as a learner along with their students. Students who struggle at solving problems with their teachers connect more strongly with those teachers; they also work harder at understanding the content.
Rather than deliver the content as experts, teachers purposefully express vulnerability. Rather than give answers, they ask questions and encourage students to do the same. For example, if a teacher presents a mathematics equation; instead of having students solve it or solving it perfectly for them, the teacher can suggest that he or she is having some trouble with the equation and suggest that the class solve it together.
This process makes learning less passive and more active. Students who may not easily grasp content come to understand that the classroom values effort and being inquisitive—not just correct answers. As students and teacher struggle and pose questions together, they form bonds and open the way to academically rigorous exchanges.

C 6. Competition

Some of the most powerful moments in both learning content and building relationships happen when students compete with one another. Competition can build positive emotions, foster intense collaboration, and make content relevant.
The current education climate privileges a brand of competition that emphasizes individual success. Competition in the kind of pedagogy I'm suggesting involves classroom activities in which students work in groups to express their knowledge of a topic through such nontraditional means as art, speeches, dance, or music. Groups can compete against one another as they showcase what they've created. For example, science classes can compete to see which class produces the best project, but teachers should declare the winner on the basis of creativity, art integration, or mathematics integration. This process enables students to express different skills and talents, and the content becomes the theme of the class, not the driving force. Students who aren't successful in traditional subjects like reading or writing become important to their respective groups for the gifts they possess—ones that typically aren't honored in the classroom.
This process supports academic rigor—particularly if high standards for content remain the same for all types of competition. As the school competes in music, art, dance, and plays, competition becomes a tool for sharpening academic skills rather than for making some students feel unsuccessful.

C 7. Curation

Curating means collecting, annotating, and preserving information. Teachers can engage in each of these actions by watching videos of themselves teaching. They study the videos to identify practices that might negatively affect their connections with students. In my work, this practice has shown that teachers favor certain students, raise their voices too often, or spend too much time facing the board and not the students.
For school administrators, bringing curation into the school involves creating spaces in which teachers and students feel comfortable recording and studying their interactions. For teachers, it requires creating classroom norms that allow a student to videotape the classroom at an agreed upon time. Co-generative dialogues complement the process, as students and teachers discuss what they see and suggest improvements.
Teachers and students learn more about one another as they watch the videos—and students learn more about the content. Students who don't engage in school typically study the video more intently than their peers do, and this reinforces the content. When teachers and students observe how they behave in the classroom and work on bettering their relationships, the space opens up for powerful academic exchanges.


We cannot test-prep our way to academic rigor. But we can get there by focusing on relationships. The approach I'm suggesting connects content with the positive emotions that come from strong relationships based on acceptance and belonging. This is the true path to academically rigorous classrooms.

Christopher Emdin is associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Beacon Press, 2016).

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