How Hip-Hop Builds Bridges to Students

Lately, language has been on my mind a lot (as evidenced by my last few blog posts).  As I seek to understand the complexities of language use and the exchange of words that comes with that, I see clearly that, for me, Hip-Hop has played a major role in fostering my poetic passion. From EPMD’s “Strictly Business” and KRS-1’s “Criminal Minded” to Nas’ “Illmatic” and Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate,”  Hip-Hop has been a vehicle for the expression of many of my experiences and the experiences of my community. This still holds true for today’s generation.

Hip-Hop, created in the late 1970’s in the Bronx by Black and Brown teenagers/young adults, has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends culture, gender, and religion. I see it everyday when, for example, my Punjabi and Muslim students come to class bumpin’ 21 Savage and Future, knowing all the words and the accompanying dances! As a new teacher to my current school building, Hip-Hop has created an avenue for authentic relationship-building between my students and me. It’s a great equalizer.

This bridge-building via Hip-Hop is taking place everyday in classrooms across the U.S. Just last week, a colleague of mine in Maine, Dan Ryder, had a breakthrough with a student by simply asking him to create a playlist of Hip-Hop music that he (the student) listens to. The student was so shocked by his teacher’s request that he quickly obliged. Now, according to Dan, he stops by his classroom just to say “hi.” That is a major breakthrough and an inroad to heightened communication between student and teacher.

Educator, writer, and activist Dr. Christopher Emdin has, among other venues, created a well-respected and well-attended weekly Twitter chat on Tuesday nights at 9:00pm that I attend faithfully with the trending hashtag #HipHopEd, specifically designed for the purpose of valuing Hip-Hop as a powerful educational tool.

Another colleague of mine, Brandon Bushido Garvey White, a teacher in Rochester, NY, just released his first album last month where he spits bars of fire on tracks that feature little-known instrumental samples  and interludes of authentic classroom dialogue between him and his students. After listening to his album on Sunday morning, I reached out to Brandon because  I was just so in awe of  my friend’s talent.  (I had no idea he rapped or produced an album called “Our Battle Rap”!) We talked openly and honestly about Hip-Hop use in the classroom by all teachers. When I asked him the essential question of how he’s using Hip-Hop/rap in his classroom, he provided such accessible strategies for incorporating Hip-Hop into the classroom that I just had to share.

Brandon frequently uses Hip-Hop for summative assessments like unit projects. Rap creation is often an assignment option used to integrate new vocabulary. For example, free styling, a.k.a. rapidly-improvised rapping, can also be used by instructors to model  new vocabulary words.

Asking students to suggest rap songs that topically coordinate with current themes, skills and texts in the curriculum can be used as a critical discussion piece to connect with the curricular work, and is often framed to practice multiple-choice test taking strategies. Rap songs/ Hip Hop cultural references are frequently used to provide further explanation via analogies, comparisons, etc.

Hip-Hop norms such as call and response can be used throughout classroom pedagogy in all content areas, on all grade-levels. I don’t know of many other instructional tools in education that can boast such prowess. I feel like I’m going to be writing about language use a lot more. I would love to hear how you use Hip-Hop in your classroom. New York School (doesn’t just) Talk — we listen, too!

What do you think?

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