In 2013, Christopher Emdin of (Associate Professor at Columbia Teachers College) gave a charismatic presentation about what he calls pentecostal pedagogy, teaching informed by the style of preaching and teaching in black pentecostal churches. He seems to come from the conviction that becoming a powerful, compelling and engaging storyteller is the key to being an engaging, effective, “magical” teacher. He suggest that barber shops, rap concerns and black pentecostal churches provide a model for becoming such a teacher. According to Emdin, it is the person who can capture the attention of an entire audience with compelling storytelling who is a master teacher. Emdin says, “Magic can be taught.” Future teachers should study people at rap concerts, black pentecostal churches, and barber shops. Essentially, Emdin is arguing that prospective teachers need to learn about and develop the skills of an excellent rhetorician. Then we will see true engagement in our classrooms. I welcome Emdin’s high regard for powerful storytelling skills, but this is far from the most important skills of an effective and engaging teacher. Consider the following ten points.
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged learner of mathematics? Is it to excitedly follow every word of a dynamic math lecture? Or is it to do and use math to solve problems in the world?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of literacy? Is it to follow every work of a charismatic teacher, or is it to be unable to put down that great book, to be lost in it for hours without even noticing the time passing by?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of science? Is it to be enthralled by an amazing science lecturer, or to to be driven and lost in some science problem or experiment, perhaps in a lab or in the field?
- What dos it mean to be a highly engaged student of history? Is it to lean in and listen well amid a history lecture, or is it to be doing historical research, tracing ideas across multiple sources, uncovering unknown secrets about the past?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of writing? Is it to hear a charismatic lecture on how to write well, or is to be drawn into the challenge of writing an essay, story, or even a blog post?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of health and wellness? Is it to be taking copious notes from a dynamic teacher about the healthy living? Or is it to be engaged in life experiments about health and wellness, learning as one lives out different health and wellness practices, tracking one’s progress, and finding joy in increased energy and a sense of well-being?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of art? Is it to be lost is a great art lecture, or to be lost in the work of great artists, or even to be lost in creating one’s own art?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of informant interpersonal life skills? Again, is it to be engaged by a powerful treatise on important interpersonal skils, or to be deeply engaged in experimenting with, observing and putting these interpersonal life skills into practice?
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged music student? By this time, you certainly get the point. It is to be drawn into the nuances of a great piece of music and/or to have the drive of learning to play music.
- What does it mean to be a highly engaged student of digital citizenship? Is it to listen carefully, excitedly and intently as someone teaches a lecture about cyberbulling; or to research, discover, and take action to prevent cyberbullying in one’s life and the life of others?
Emdin has a great point, but it does not capture the essence of highly engaged learning. Rhetoric is a valuable skill for teachers, but more valuable skills are found in discover how to engage students in reading, writing, creating, experimenting, discovering, observing, and interacting. The magical classroom is the one where students are doing these things more than they are listening to a teacher (regardless of how engaging she might be). The magical classroom leaves one baffled because the teacher is not the center of attention like a rapper in a concert or a minister in a pentecostal church. The magic is found in what the students are doing with their time. They are not passive recipients of content, but engaged creators, designers, contributors, composers, analysts, evaluators, activists, change agents, researchers, critics, defenders, interpreters, problem solvers, planners, and practitioners.
The limit of Edmin’s ideas is found when he suggests how to help future teachers become engaging storytellers. First, he suggests that they get out of the classroom and into the barber shops, rap concerts, and pentecostal churches; taking notes and learning from these charismatic communicators. Note that this is different from learning from a single compelling lecture. This is making students field researchers. The magic is not coming from the engaging teacher/rhetorician, but from the students getting out and engaged with the world. Second, watching models of engaging storytelling is not enough to embrace those practices. That requires doing it, getting feedback, practice, and persistence. I contend that the same is true when it comes to creating magical classrooms. They come from what the students are doing more than from the rhetorical prowess of the teachers.