Hip-Hop and Rap Lyrics Can Be Useful Teaching Tools

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Editor: Beth Rosenthal
Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Series: At Issue
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 1,729 words
Content Level: (Level 2)
Lexile Measure: 810L

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Mary Ellen Flannery, "Yo! From Tupac to the Bard," NEA Today, vol. 27, no. 3, November/December 2008, pp. 35-37. Copyright © 2008 by Mary Ellen Flannery. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of National Education Association.

Mary Ellen Flannery is a senior writer and editor at the National Education Association.

There is a great tendency among educators to view hip-hop and rap music in only negative terms. Rather than causing young people to be violent and sexually active, rap and hip-hop can be used to reach children and to encourage them to learn. The lyrics and views found in hip-hip and rap music can put themes in contexts that children can easily understand, and to which they can relate. Simply put, hip-hip and rap allow teachers to communicate more easily with their students.

"Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I'd never amount to nothin', to all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin' in front of that called the police on me when I was just tryin' to make some money to feed my daughters, and all the n——-s in the struggle—you know what I'm sayin'?"

Ooooh! Did he just say the N-word?

He did. And that's just one of the reasons that many educators give a little, "eh, I just don't think so," when it comes to using hiphop in the classroom. Much of it is profane or violent, offensive to women and gays, and just ... dangerous. Ugh. And you see the kids listening, rapt, heads bobbing, like some kind of genius prophet is speaking through those ear buds.

Just think: what's it doing to them?

Well, engaging them, for one thing.

These days, you can't turn the dial without tuning into chart-topping, millionaire hip-hop artists like 50 Cent or Ludacris, rapping street-smart about diamonds and drugs, poverty, and police brutality. (Sings Kanye West: "They say, 'Oh you graduated?' No, I decided I was finished chasing y'all dreams.") While you might immediately move on, muttering, "This is the new American jazz?" many of your students hear something that they believe speaks directly to them. Like it or not, over the past 20 years, hiphop has become key to the canon of contemporary music.

Wouldn't it be nice if they listened to you with the same attention? Or if they could quote Langston Hughes with the same fluency? Well, consider this: Many of your colleagues believe it's possible, even paramount, to use hip-hop to build exactly those kinds of connections.

It's been years since California teacher Alan Sitomer added a little bumpin' flava to his language arts lessons at Lynwood High School, transforming his classroom and his students, too. Beginning with a single bridge that he built between Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (he of "Do not go gentle into that good night") and murdered rapper Tupac Shakur ("The question is, will I live?") Sitomer began finding ways to bring "fresh relevance to timeless themes."

While you might immediately move on, muttering, "This is the new American jazz?" many of your students hear something that they believe speaks directly to them.

"I got started using hip-hop in the classroom because my students were spectacularly disengaged from the classic curriculum. They roll out all these materials when you become a new teacher—do this, do that—but the kids don't see their lives reflected in those materials.

"I decided to meet them where they live."

There is one thing you can do as a teacher, that's more important than anything else, to help them and help you, suggests Sarah Montgomery-Glinski, co-director of the educational initiative at the New York-based Hip-Hop Association and a high school special education teacher herself. And it's this:

"Connect with your students. Don't be afraid."

Gettin' JIGGY Wit' It

Where they once stared blankly and scored near the bottom of standardized tests, Sitomer's students now are energized learners, strong academic performers, and proof that it's possible to use hip-hop as a tool for engagement and resource for lesson planning. And, as for Sitomer, a former California State Teacher of the Year, his methods have become so sought-after that he's become a book author and coveted speaker.

"When I started this, I was vilified. 'That's not real teaching!'" Sitomer recalls. "But when you look at my scores, I have some of the highest California exit-exam scores in the state. [Ninety-eight percent of his kids passed, compared with 57 percent of Lynwood's overall.] I attribute that to the fact that my students are engaged in learning.... Once the students are engaged, you can go anywhere."

For him, the lyrics—scrubbed of all profanity, misogyny, homophobia, or other offense—offer a valid source of imagery, alliteration, personification, or other literary devices.

Your colleagues who use hip-hop in the classroom almost all consider it a tool to get somewhere else. This isn't Hip-Hop 101. "I'm teaching artistry, not the artist," Sitomer says.

For him, the lyrics—scrubbed of all profanity, misogyny, homophobia, or other offense—offer a valid source of imagery, alliteration, personification, or other literary devices. Often he'll pair a hip-hop artist with a classic poet to teach a specific standard. Sometimes, because the 40-something doesn't even pretend to know what kids are listening to, he'll assign his students, who are mostly Black or Hispanic, the task of finding answers in their own digital collections.

For Adam Recktenwald, an art teacher who teaches a multidisciplinary humanities course at suburban East Brunswick High School in New Jersey, even the questionable language offers opportunities. During a unit on diversity, discussions about stereotypical language, the way that we communicate with each other, whether positively or negatively, can be stimulated by hip-hop. "What exactly is he talking about? Why are you listening to that? Do you really understand what he's saying?"

(You might not have any idea what he's really saying either. Recktenwald advises taking a look at www.urbandictionary.com, a sometimes unreliable, often shocking guide to the way kids talk.)

Modern culture connects with kids, he's found. Clips of race comics, like Dave Chappelle or Russell Peters, bring home more lessons about censorship and societal values. "A lot of our students feel our society is post-racist. Like, 'We're so not-racist it's OK to be racist again....'

"We give them an opportunity to talk about things that they wouldn't otherwise—and these are things they should talk about before they go away to college and enter a larger group that's even more diverse," Recktenwald says. "There are definitely students that have wake-up calls ... that are learning to make connections."

Bring the Noise

A quick history lesson: Hip-hop first appeared in New York City in the 1970s, mostly in Black communities. At first, it was mostly unrecorded and focused on danceable percussive beats and narrative raps.

In the 1980s, the music grew more complicated. With new technology, artists commonly "sampled" other songs and laid down multi-layered beats with raps that were becoming more metaphorical and socially conscious. At the same time, artists like LL Cool J and Public Enemy, who released the political entreaty, "Fight the Power," in 1989, started to make it big. ("Our freedom of speech is freedom or death. We got to fight the powers that be!")

"These are artists who are making statements. If you go back and listen to that music, it's poetic," Recktenwald says. Since then, with the rise of "gangsta rap" and commercial rewards for the most offensive artists, it's tough to find the good stuff, Recktenwald acknowledges. "A lot of people think hip-hop equals pornography. But probably what they've heard is the least talented, least poetic. What's accessible is garbage."

Of course, to many educators, it's all garbage—you'd rather spend time with Ludacris than Steinbeck? "I teach literature and kids really respond to dinosaur stuff like Of Mice and Men, and Frankenstein. Of course they can only respond if they're exposed to them," says one English teacher. "It's our job as educators to expose them to decent ideas—and combat crass culture."

With new technology, artists commonly "sampled" other songs and laid down multi-layered beats with raps that were becoming more metaphorical and socially conscious.

"Students need to learn about literature," adds another. "We're doing them a huge disservice when we manipulate the curriculum just to make a connection."

Still, if you want the motivating beat of hip-hop without its baggage, you may ignore commercial artists altogether. In recent years, the buzz around hip-hop educational products has reached a new crescendo.

One of the first was Brooklyn-based Flocabulary ("Rocking harder than your grandma's chair," www.flocabulary.com), which started off with SAT words and definitions set to catchy raps but has since branched out to U.S. history, science, and math curricula. More recently, Black Gold Edutainment, www.hiphop-edu.com, wowed audiences at the 2008 NEA Representative Assembly.

Or take a look at some of your colleagues, like Detroit-area middle school teacher D.J. Duey, www.mrduey.com. "Solid! People at the party are getting real crowded. So close together they can't move around!" rhymes Duey in his physical science rap, "State of Matter." Or, check out two New York City educators who have teamed up to teach reading and math at www.sing2school.com.

"Kids know every rap song, right? But then they can't remember the definition of obsequiousness," says Alex Rappaport, a former tutor and Flocabulary founder. He points to memory research that shows the brain is wired in a way that makes music helpful for memory recall. (There's a reason you remember all the lyrics to "Summer of '69"!) Plus, the kids just dig it. "We've been in a lot of urban schools, especially in New York and California, and the response is: 'This is something I'm interested in. I get it.'"

Rappaport is a recent college graduate and both East Coast hipsters, Recktenwald and Montgomery-Glinski, also are in their 20s. But none of them believe that hip-hop is a teaching tool for the youngest workers only.

"There's room for anybody to use just about any form of art in the classroom. I don't feel ashamed to talk about Greek and Roman sculpture. I don't feel silly talking about Frank Sinatra. I want to present to my students as many different forms of creative expression as possible," says Recktenwald.

"You have to do it from your station in life," Montgomery-Glinski advises. "You can't come in with baggy pants and rhyme your lessons, but you can acknowledge their experiences."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3010776202