I used to work in a summer program at a prominent university in the Washington, D.C.-area intended to get black students into the field of public policy and foreign affairs. For something like seven straight summers, I was either a resident assistant (first two years) or a teacher’s assistant (economics, statistics, policy analysis; all seven years).
In my role as a TA, I’d hold a study hall twice a week for whatever class I was working with. What usually happened, though, especially in the economics and statistics TA sessions, was reteaching the class that had happened earlier that day. For the most part, the students in the program were in the humanities, and the quantitative classes we taught were HEAVILY quantitative, so there was a lot of learning that happened those summers.
I’d work with the teacher to establish the workload for the classes, get all of the notes and reteach each day’s lessons before helping with the homework and explaining principles and practices. Lest you be curious about why I was qualified to do any of this, my undergraduate degree is in economics, and I have a master’s degree in public policy. So there.
Well, one particular year, I was “teaching” the advanced statistics class, and they were having a particularly rough go with a certain concept one day. The particular concept escapes me. As was usually my M.O., I’d often just speak in rap lyrics or reference hip-hop for various things to keep the mood light; it usually made me the cool faculty member. I remember getting to the point where I’d offhandedly mentioned that I could probably make a better example by breaking down a brick. And that’s when it happened.
As a quick aside, let me break down the makeup of these classes: While the program was intended to focus on minorities in public policy, it also included a program for future foreign service officers, many of whom were white. In my class were roughly 25 students, probably 60 percent white/other and 40 percent black. Most of the white students attended schools in the Northeast or West, and most of the black students went to historically black colleges and universities.
So I offhandedly mentioned breaking down a brick, and a white hand shot up.
“P, what’s a brick?”
“You know, a brick ... cocaine, a kilo of cocaine.”
“I’ve never heard that term before.”
“Really?! How many in here have heard the term ‘brick’ used for cocaine before?”
Not one hand went up, and I was confused.
“Nobody? OK, who has heard of the term ‘flipping birds’?”
Again, no hands.
“Me. Seriously, none of you listen to the Clipse? Well, bricks are kilos of drugs, and flipping birds is another way of saying selling bricks, or kilos, of cocaine. I guess you never know what you’re going to learn. Let’s move on.”
“P, why do you know this? What else you got?”
“I mean, I ... know things. Life comes at you fast. There’s lots of other things; I mean, some of it actually can translate well for this lesson. If you guys want, I can, ya know, share some of my knowledge.”
Everybody was interested except for a few students I was pretty sure were going to alert the heads of the program and send me to the principal’s office.
Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seriously consider whether or not what I was about to do was shameful. For one, every time I read a story about some teacher trying to connect to students using “urban” references, it went super sideways. But it was always in high school, and these were rising college seniors who were asking for more knowledge.
Second, I actually knew what I was talking about; this wasn’t about to be some person making up random nonsensical questions with ethnic names to try to relate or use questions about bullets some ethnically named child tried to shoot. While I wasn’t about to be that guy, I also didn’t want to be that guy, ya know: the black teacher stereotypically being a stereotype.
But I had their undivided attention AND had a very clear and concise way to teach that day’s lesson using proportions and percentages (points on a package, etc.) and street value of product, so I locked the door to the class and very politely asked all students to keep the lesson between us, and proceeded to teach the hell out of that statistics class for the next two hours (even with graphical representations—I really wish I had pictures of this) using examples that I could make work, while also teaching them various information about drugs, the sale of drugs, and things used to aid in the selling of drugs.
Keep in mind, I was not proud of this, but I also had an extremely engaged and interested class on my hands, partially because we were talking about something they knew NOTHING about (oddly to me) that was dangerous and mysterious (to them), but also because I seemed to be very knowledgeable and aware. I cited lots of hip-hop songs and The Wire as my sources, with varying references to those I may or may not have known who dabbled in nontaxable pharmaceuticals.
The good news: The students all ACED that section of the next homework and test. The information from that study hall sank in and sank in good. The bad news? Those two students who looked concerned definitely shared that information with the heads of the program, who subsequently did call me into the office to talk about my teaching methods, which they had to admit were effective but also felt might send the wrong message.
My argument? The message was received, and they all did well. I agreed to stay away from devoting class time to enlightening future leaders about the drug trade, even though I’m sure I turned that entire class on to the The Wire. You’re welcome, HBO.
I’ve often looked back on that class. I managed to reach the students, effectively and efficiently. It was like the time I was tutoring at a high school in D.C. and my students were not getting their algebra at all until I decided to explain to them how their favorite rappers were probably all broke. THEN? That math started sticking. I believe in authentically reaching the students I’m teaching. And I did that in spades in various settings.
And yet I always felt like I’d done something wrong, or at least somewhat regrettable, for going stereotypical to teach lessons. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why, but I do. Luckily, all of those students finished the summer program and went off to do wonderful things, with most of them going into public policy graduate schools. In fact, one of those students has a birthday coming up next week.
And THAT’S how I ended up at Target this morning buying a birthday card and kitty litter.
I don’t own any cats.