Why Teachers Need Hip Hop Education in the Classroom

Note: The following post was featured on the Classcraft Blog, and is simply reproduced here. You can see where it was originally published by clicking here.

Hip Hop Ed has become an ever-growing popular movement today, especially due to its cultural relevance and its tendency to promote—through its connection with students—an increased social and political awareness in an academic setting.

Simply put, Hip Hop Education is the use of hip hop culture, especially rap songs and lyrics, as classroom content— both in the creation of material to learn and in the delivery of existing material. #HipHopEd even thrives on Twitter weekly, with the movement inspiring teachers and students alike.

Speaking students’ language

From the 1970s to today, there is no denying the pervasiveness of hip hop in today’s youth culture. While it has been present and even popular for decades, with hip hop figures represented among different generations, hip hop culture has always—even as it has aged and matured—had an association with the youth of today. This in itself is an anomaly; how can something be about and in response to historical events, political climates, and even living conditions without dating itself?

The answer lies in hip hop music’s close connection to hip hop culture and in its ability to maintain a strong connection with its practitioners and fan base despite any shifts in technique, medium, or content. At the center of hip hop culture is something universal and integral to human nature: oral tradition. It’s a medium of catharsis and expression coming together and being spat out in the exact way it is meant, there to be admired for what makes it art—and especially for what makes it “ugly” to some listeners.

This steady relation to youth is a no-brainer as a way to connect with young students. It’s important not only to art but also history and even contemporary life. Most importantly, hip hop in education is a powerful way to teach students the skills they need to help themselves, at school and at home.

It’s about mutual respect

The academic world tends to recoil in response to any connection to hip hop culture. It’s uneducated, one might think; it’s not socially appropriate and promotes destructive behavior. In an essay accusing hip hop of destroying the “potential of black youth,” Jeffrey Hicks states that “hip-hop culture deadens the drive toward civility and legitimizes backwardness.” However, using hip hop in the classroom doesn’t mean I am turning a blind eye to all of the things that can make its presence in the classroom uncomfortable (although I do disagree with this “evil” portrayal). In fact, you should use hip hop especially if you’re not comfortable with it!

First of all, actions speak louder than words. Using hip hop in the classroom is an action that has a huge effect on what students receive from you. They see you reaching into a world that they are familiar with instead of pulling them into your world. They see you playing and engaging with them instead of retreating in fear. Not only may you accidentally show them another thing to value about your curriculum, but even the mere attempt to connect is so visible that it can’t be ignored. Whether you mean it to or not, you are showing respect for something that is theirs in your classroom.

Every teacher knows and acknowledges that there are actions, items, and concepts that are inappropriate for a classroom setting. What this can sometimes manifest as, however, is an environment in firm denial of the existence of anything “inappropriate.” The class becomes a “safe space” but then morphs into a bubble of disrespect, teaching students to look down on any other environment not mirroring the same ideals. If you instead show them the relevance of what they’re learning in the context of the culture they themselves appropriate, you are doing something incredibly important by example.

Hip hop forces discussion about race, poverty, identity, family, hate, and the Man—all of which are things students worry about daily when they’re supposed to be thinking about your step-by-step tutorial on Shakespearean sonnets. You have an opportunity with hip hop to acknowledge pain, hate, anger, and injustice instead of denying it and further losing respect from students, who go home to these real issues and face them instead of your homework. You can show them through hip hop staples (rhyme, repetition, storytelling, catharsis, reflection) how to handle these issues and even use them to navigate another discomfort: your academic world.

Another thing that lends hip hop culture well to a classroom atmosphere is its intolerance for silence. Hip hop is about taking life’s problems and putting them “on blast,” whether it’s coming up with solutions or even just spreading awareness of the issue. Subscribers to hip hop may profess that “snitches get stitches,” but the truth is that hip hop culture is about snitching on life and the world.

Incorporating hip hop into your teaching

By reflecting this “take the good, eschew the bad” ideology with your handling of hip hop, you are modeling how to take what life gives, incorporate what is useful, and filter the rest. You are showing students that the proper response to adversity is not flight, despair, or dismissal—it is action, discussion, and collaboration, all ideals heavily promoted in hip hop culture and in academia alike.

You aren’t encouraging mindless adoption of hip hop ideals, as Hicks suggests, resulting in young people “applying for a job with unsightly cornrows, baggy clothing, and using less-than-acceptable English.” Discussion of hip hop culture as a connection or even a medium for learning is not the same as adoption of hip hop culture.

So teach a verse that helps them remember the quadratic formula, but also includes how much you hate remembering it. Have them make a diss track against whoever they think is responsible for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Anger is healthy but should never be coupled with indifference; this distinction is important in discouraging destructive action versus angry expression.

In 2016, I created a unit that focused on the human reaction to times of trauma, something that a depressingly high number of students are familiar with. Framing an examination of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, students had to compare the way O’Brien and his self-named character within the story dealt with trauma, both in the depiction of himself and in the actual creation of the stories. By the end of the semester, students were examining methods of catharsis for their own lives.

After that final project, I had students reflecting on assignments who, instead of responding with the first semester’s “I learned how to read and write better,” now wrote things like, “I learned how poetry could help me cope with my sister’s death.” I was emotionally drained, but one thing was for sure: There were some students that had needed the hip hop presence in my class to know that they could answer problems themselves.

For all of its ugliness, I felt I had brought them something through hip hop that they hadn’t gotten before and might not have had the chance to learn otherwise. I realized I had given them something integral to living and coping with life—all this through an English class.

Fear as a call to action

If you are worried that the chance to express oneself will result in a wild classroom of students, then don’t you have a responsibility to go through the process of expression with them, offering constructive guidance so they don’t unleash that energy recklessly?

In other words: If you don’t teach them how to handle their own lives and cultures despite their fear, then you end up passing on something to be fearful of. What does it say if a student can handle school but not life? Why do we not want to show students where their own cultural identity fits into all this?

Hip Hop Education is a chance to engage students not only with your classwork, but with their own lives. My students had a reason to study metaphors, and they had reasons to look at how Tim O’Brien dealt with the death of his friend Kiowa—because through hip hop, these elements of English curriculum were now yielding secrets that provided clues to their own problems.

I found that hip hop didn’t just make my students care about the content; it gave me new reasons to care about it, too.

 

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You Don’t Like Sleep.

Sleep is a beautiful thing.  Sleep helps you lose weight, grow taller, heighten your senses, process memories, dump old memories – you get all that for SLEEPING, an activity that, in theory, takes little to no effort, and only requires you to take the time to do it.

When I was young, I squandered the opportunities to sleep as often as I could.  Well, according to my memory anyway; apparently, when I was a baby I was a very good napper.  I didn’t do any of that crib-climbing stuff that I watched my little brother do with fascination.  In fact, at one point, my mom said she put me on a mattress on the ground – no restraints, fences, nothing – and I made no attempt to escape whatsoever.  What a loser.  My brother in that same situation for one parent-imposed naptime was crawling out of there like Gollum.

But intellectually, I fought naptimes, and I stayed up late doing homework, IMing, gaming, binge-watching Netflix and staying up with my insomniac brother.  Over time, I kind of forgot what it was like to have a full, complete sleep.  Sometimes I noted that I was too tired to sleep.  Yep, in moments of extreme tiredness, my body would do things not conducive to sleeping.  My body was too sleepy to figure out how to sleep – short of collapsing in exhaustion when I finally hit zero.

It was actually my wife who pushed me to go to bed on time during my first two or so years of teaching.  I still remember what it was like that first morning after an eight hours sleep.  I had super powers!  My food didn’t drag me down, my senses were loading up my brain with information, my work got done so fast with my usual planning that I had all this extra time, too!  Life was… better!  Who wouldn’t do this?!

Now, sleep is one of the only things that lacks in my life.  Lack of sleep makes it hard to lose weight, work, and even spend time with my wife – which, because I’m suffering from lack of sleep, makes it so I have to make up for all of this by… you got it: NOT sleeping – which made it WORSE.  Yes, learn this lesson now.  Right my wrongs.  Not sleeping will make you so bad at being awake that you won’t get a chance to sleep.

So now I see these young teenagers every day at my work, and on the surface of it, it looks like they’re smarter than I was.  “I love sleep!” they’ll say.  Yet, day after day, students will wander into my classroom with half-lidded eyes and profess to long nights of Netflix, gaming and Snapchatting.  I thought you loved sleep?

When I love something, I prioritize it.  I make time for it.  That’s not what’s happening when my students are thinking about sleep.  They are doing things that aren’t sleep, and putting it off further and further, and only thinking of it wistfully because they’re bad at being awake.  “I can’t wait till spring break so I can just get some sleep,” which means that they can do all of their night time stuff and oversleep with no consequences.

So maybe it’s time to be precise: Do you love sleep, or do you hate waking up?

If it’s the latter, would you hate waking up so much if you just got some sleep?

To People Who Don’t Read

A lot of young people like to make the excuse that they “don’t read.”

Word?

Reading books and writing are among brain-stimulating activities shown to slow down cognitive decline in old age, with people who participated in more mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes having a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities.

Translation: How do you not read? It’s literally the other way to communicate.

“No, no, I don’t read for fun.”

That’s like saying I’m bad at math because I don’t spend my evenings graphing parabolas.  Like mathematicians are at home begging, “Mom, after dinner can I recite the quadratic formula? I love the way that everything divides by 2a!”

Even so, if you know that not reading is the reason you’re awful, then doesn’t it make sense to start now?

Here’s the thing; there’s some guff on the internet that says something about how “you don’t even use what you learn in school, anyway” or something like that.  That’s complete malarkey – a successful person will figure out how to use most of what they learn in high school to some degree.  But even if you accept that flawed premise, here’s a stone cold truth: Reading and writing are NOT on the list of things you won’t need.

I tell this story to everyone who tells me they won’t need reading and writing skills.  In my first job at a bowling alley, I worked with a coworker/supervisor (I’m not telling which because that’s too specific for creepy internet stalkers) who wanted to advertise a special deal: Pepperoni pizza for $1.00 a slice.  He had the bright idea of making this special appear on the score screens of all 32 lanes in large letters that would march across the screen.

“Peperroni Piza, $1.OO per slise – munday thru thirsday!!!”

Not only is every word except “per” and “thru,” (an acceptable abbreviation) misspelled, but he even had a typo on the part with “$1.00,” because he used O’s instead of zeroes.  Yes – dude misspelled a number.  I was mortified and had to fix it immediately, and of course, anyone who saw it was probably similarly mortified.

I’m not stopping the story here, though, as a cautionary tale where all listeners go “Well, I’m not THAT bad!”

The reason I tell that story is to deliver a message: If you write without capitalizing, it’s exactly as noticeable as this situation.  If you can’t write three sentences without showing why you didn’t get a diploma, it will look exactly the same as if you had written that pizza sign.  If you can’t read in the work world, it will be noticed and seen in exactly the same way as I, and now you, look at this guy.  There is no way to reveal a lack of reading and writing skill that isn’t embarrassing, except in school.

In my head, I feel like even youths caught up in gang activity might even be like “I’m gonna trust you to have my back?  I’m gonna trust you with a gun?  You didn’t even pass English 1, man.”  After all, if you can’t sit still long enough to learn how to read with people paid to help you, how are you going to fend for your life in this world?

I’m not saying people not good at these things have no value; I’m saying that there’s no way to hide it or ignore it.  It’s not like a scar you can conceal.  In most cases, within minutes of knowing you and hearing you talk, reading your texts, or viewing your Snapchat, employers, friends, enemies, and everyone else will know whether you would sell “piza” or “pizza.”

Here’s the kicker: Even people with similarly bad or worse spelling and grammar can tell when someone can’t write.

“I never read when I was young, Mr. Phan, so it’s too late for me.”

A lot of people seem to think that if you don’t start reading at a young age, then you’ll never become good at it. And I see why they might think that.

According to studies done by the University of Oxford, “Young brains do tend to be able to absorb new information better than old ones, although not necessarily to integrate it as well with what has been learned previously.”

That’s why little kids can’t take over the world. Little kids can learn faster, but older people use what they learn better.

That’s why I’m better at arguing than you are.

However, learning how to read at an earlier age doesn’t mean a rooster’s crow.

“Being taught to read at an early age (such as five years old) does not ultimately result in better reading skills, and if it replaces more developmentally appropriate activities, then it may cause other harms.”

Studies conducted in 2015 indicate that

“there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success.”

You can start NOW!  So what if it’s harder for your mind to absorb?  You’re also older – perhaps more mature now, and better able to suck it up and do the work.  It’s never too late to improve your reading skill.  Gorillas are doing sign language, man!

“Mr. Phan, I don’t have any books!”

Get a library card, homey!  Plus, I’ve got some more tips and tricks for you:

1: Borrow books from people.

The reason you want to do this is because, for many people, reading isn’t attractive because it’s a solitary activity, and we like to be social. If you borrow a book from someone, you instantly have someone else who also read the book, so you can talk about that one epic scene where the warrior slapped the king in the face. For bonus points, ask teachers! They’ll probably let you borrow some stuff!  You also will make more friends who also read, a really important thing that can help if you need to be surrounded by a positive atmosphere.

2. Read your interests.

Don’t be afraid to re-tread some of your old interests. See a movie recently? Read the book. Reading a book of a story you already know lets you not stress out about understanding the plot and instead can let you focus on other things – like the differences between the two.  Find the sequels.  Find other books by authors of books you already read.

3. Watch all of your movies with subtitles.

Even if you think you’re ignoring them, your brain will actually do a lot of work without you knowing. Also when you don’t hear something, you’ll instinctively look at the subtitles before bothering anybody with questions. Lastly, hearing the words being used will help expand your vocabulary and also help you recognize difficult words. That’s right, you can watch Terminator 2 and still increase your reading level.  Arnold definitely taught some people how to say “cybernetic organism.”  Netflix offers captions for almost everything.  This is great for rewatching movies that you’ve already seen.

4. Pronounce long words.

Sound that stuff out! I can’t stand it when someone’s reading in my class and they get to a word longer than two syllables and stop dead.  Everyone in my class now knows what I want them to do: Be brave. Sound it out, say it the best you can. If you say it wrong, say it wrong forever until someone teaches you the right way. You gotta keep a growth mindset. You’re not going to learn how letters work in the awful, complicated world of English unless you’re wrong first.

This will also help you if you learned to read by sight (memorizing words) vs phonetically (sounding them out.)  Reading by sight with memorized words leads to students being stopped in their tracks at even the most rudimentary words.  It’s like teaching someone to skate and then expecting them to be able to dance – and then finding out they never learned to walk.  Sound out the words.  Do that old-fashioned thing in Sesame Street where they combine two signs into one word.

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5. Google stuff.

Google is a verb here, but it works as an adjective too.  Ask Google what stuff means.  Most devices will allow you to do this in seconds.  “Okay Google, define equilibrium.”  It’s over.  There was a time when if you had questions about something you read, it meant consulting this:

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This is a real photo from the place in which I grew up.

Those days are gone.  In seconds you’ll know that equilibrium means “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced,” AND is also an underrated action movie with Christian Bale and Sean Bean about a dystopian world that destroys books and drugs people into happy submission.  How can encyclopedias compete?  The only possible answer is: by looking so wonderfully photogenic.

It’s never too late to learn to read skillfully… until you embarrass yourself.  Blogs are a great start.  So I suppose, while you’re increasing your reading level, enjoy your stay, and feel free to click around!

Why Eat?

So, like most of America that isn’t in denial, I’ve been trying to lose weight recently.  Why?  Because honestly, life is too short to spend most of it unable to touch your toes.  I can touch my toes right now, but it’s only a matter of time.

Like anyone will tell you, it’s difficult.  Over the summer I lost 30 pounds.  There my progress stopped, and I’ve been fluctuating ever since.  I have a couple theories about why I’m having trouble, and one of them is simply because there are too many reasons to eat.

1.  We eat when we’re hungry.

Well, DUHHHH.  When you’re hungry, you eat.  However, I think there’s a hunger inflation at play here.  It doesn’t make sense that I can eat one grilled cheese sandwich or a full buffet dinner and still feel hungry three hours later.  That’s like putting a hundred-dollar bill into a vending machine and getting the same lukewarm Dasani as the dude putting in 35 cents!  What you eat supposedly matters – so why is my body pretending that it’s all the same?  How can I trust anything if I can’t even trust my own body?

How am I supposed to even believe that I’ve ever been hungry?  I’ve never known hardship; I don’t think I’ve ever notably skipped a meal due to happenstance.  Weird qualifier, but I think it’s an important one; I’ve never been a victim of circumstance.  Meanwhile, my father came to the US with nothing but the clothes on his back and built a life up from scratch – and my body dares to tell me it’s hungry because I didn’t have egg with my rice and spam?  Thas some codswallop, coz!  I call malarkey!  It can’t be true!  Yet my stomach roars and demands to be fed – and I’m trying to retrain it like a naughty dog without developing an eating disorder.

The key here, I think, is recalibration.  I just need to ask myself: which triggers in my body indicate actual hunger, and which ones are false alarms?

2. We eat when we’re bored.

Need time to pass?  Prepping something to eat is one of the easiest ways to do it.  Munching away lets us look at the clock afterward with satisfaction.  Gathering ingredients, putting them together, and finally enjoying the fruits of your labor has helped many impatient children – and later, adults – deal with the trial of waiting.  

Human beings hate to wait.  My father hates to wait, my brother hates to wait – and I definitely hate to wait.  Asking a kid with ADHD to wait instantly places them into a time paradox in which 45 thoughts are had, processed, and possibly even voiced in the span of a few seconds.  Being told to wait has made me a victim of some cruel master of Time and Space chuckling away as he watched me figure out nine ways to make annoying clicking noises at my siblings while my parents tried to pump gas.  So of course, you give a kid a snack, he’s placated.  As an adult with nothing to do, it’s too easy to look for something “to munch on.”

People can’t handle monotony.  In fact, studies show that when you eat out of boredom, it’s not for the pleasure of the food.  When scientists put people in a room and had them watch the same 85-second clip of indoor tennis to watch, they gave these people some M&Ms to munch on.  The second time, they gave them the ability to self-administer electrical shocks.  They were both popular among our bored people.

That’s right. Apparently, my generation can’t even handle boredom without being self-destructive.  Not that human beings in general are known for handling boredom well.  Part of the argument for education for everyone is to keep kids “off the streets,” a euphemism for “not let them be bored because boredom and freedom lead to drugs, alcohol, and/or petty crime.”  True, education is a pretty good answer to that because it teaches brain activity in the face of boredom – quite literally – but I want to follow that ideal to the letter if I can… in other words, challenge my brain instead of filling my stomach.

3. We eat to socialize.

Eating is literally a social event – and a social lubricant.

“Hey, let’s have lunch!”  – That Guy We All Know

I just had lunch with a friend.  We ate pizza, and it was good, but my point is, why do we – including me – feel it’s necessary to eat in order to socialize?  This friend was a good enough friend that I know the pizza wasn’t necessary to have a stimulating experience.  Since getting married, in order to stay in my circle the amount of fun/stimulation required per square hour is pretty ridiculous, so the fact that I wanted to hang with him at all should have been enough.  Yet I can imagine that text.

whodied

Okay, I’m stretching a bit.  What I’m pretty sure happened was that people were awful at talking to each other and needed something in common.  The thought is “Hey, we all need to eat, so let’s all eat.”  It’s actually even a logical thought if it’s seen as a requirement for life; if we’re both going to eat, we might as well eat together and knock it out while we bond.  However, I feel the threat is when that balloons into “We need to eat whenever we’re together.”  (Not the case with you, dude, I was just using an example of socializing while eating).  I’m not like that with my friends – at least, not since college, but I have felt the social pressure to eat.  Part of it is linked to the one about boredom.  If you think dealing with boredom as an individual is difficult, dealing with boredom AND social awkwardness as a group is even worse – and probably what leads to both obesity and gang violence.

The key here is to be with people who have similar goals.  When I was doing P90x with the same pizza buddy, there was a shared unwillingness to negate the suffering we had just gone through with Ab-Ripper X that kept us from going off the rails and downing sundaes.  It’s a lot harder when you’re expected to just show self-control.  Part of me wants to post a picture of a starving person on the wall to remind me not to be overindulgent, but another part of me thinks it will have the opposite effect and lead to me eating even more out of appreciation for not being in that situation.

4. We eat for financial reasons.

This one is huge – especially if you’re raised by immigrants.  You’re taught not to waste food even if you don’t feel like eating it, and that somewhere people are starving, so you should be grateful for what you have.  This isn’t really an incorrect lesson as much as it is a traumatizing one.  After all, you definitely want your child to prioritize survival over pickiness without them being weeded out by Darwinism.

At the same time, this lesson can lead to some problems.  For one thing, buying anything at Costco becomes a commitment – sometimes for the worse.  You can’t go buy a salad because you need to finish all the burger patties before they get all moldy because there’s no more room in the freezer!  You need to eat ALL the bacon!  You need to eat all of the leftovers before they go bad, especially if one of your family members calls it quits and refuses to eat it.

5. We eat for emotional reasons.

Emotions definitely have impacted how people eat.  People use food to deal with their issues instead of coping with them head-on or seeking catharsis.  I’m pretty aware when something like this is happening, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to it.

However, there’s another aspect of emotion that is much more of a threat to me.  If someone you love cooks up, oh, I don’t know, a whole pan of the bombest fried rice on the planet, complete with egg and Chinese sausage, and then follows that by making french toast, do you refuse such gifts and say “no thanks, I’ll make some wheat toast?”

If you would, you’re a monster, and you’ll live those extra years of life cold and alone.

The food tastes good… because it has love.  More importantly, accepting that love is important.  So important that I not only used two forms of the same word, “important,” in one sentence, but also risked possibly making this sentence a fragment by beginning with “so” as a vague intensifier to make my point.

Yet, I want to live – which means finding a way to make my appreciation apparent in more ways than the happy reception of food.  In fact, I would say that the answer to all of this is a simple-to-say, hard-to-do one: Enrich my life so that food isn’t the crutch, the focus, or the answer.  As human beings, we are past the point where food is the focus of an entire day in order to survive – at least, in my current environment.  It’s time for my life to reflect that.  I should look forward to life, not to dinner.

Do you look forward to your food more than you should?  What reasons make you eat besides just hunger?