Tag Archives: Education

Four Current Examples of Dynamic Characters

Dynamic and Static characters may seem like an easy-to-process concept, especially with some solid examples. However, you may run into the problem of your solid, perfect example becoming suddenly (or not – let’s be truthful with ourselves) obsolete.

Well, here’s where I come to the rescue. Without further ado, here are 5 examples of Dynamic characters that today’s youth will understand. The design is such that hopefully if you cover this list, at least one will hit students the right way, and you’ll have that “Ohhhhhh” moment!

Vegeta, Prince of Saiyans

Before

VegetaInFriendsReturn

Vegeta begins in an anime/manga called Dragon Ball Z, where he starts as a heartless alien prince hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth so it can be terraformed and sold to the highest bidder. He is cruel, sadistic, and arrogant. He shows this through his cruel fighting style, as well as his unflinching penchant for destroying those in a vulnerable position. A perfect example of this is when his partner – unexpectedly defeated by the heroes of the series – begs him for help. Vegeta pretends at first to help his long-time partner-since-childhood, then instead tosses him into the air and brutally destroys him in a blinding flash of power.

After

VegetaMajinLittleTrunksBuuSaga

This one is great because every time we see Vegeta, he is going through some kind of change. Like the next example, we almost never see the same Vegeta twice.

Vegeta is forced to fight on the heroes side repeatedly out of self-preservation, and somewhere along the way a change happens inside him that he has to wrestle with. It arguably begins when he marries one of the heroes, Bulma, and has his first child with her. He battles with his newfound affection and benevolence for Earth, and even tries one last time to turn to his evil self before eventually holding his son close and telling him he’s proud to be his father, and then subsequently sacrificing himself to save the Earth.

Iron Man/Tony Stark

This superhero is one that is always in a different part of his personal journey when you see him, and even though his first movie was about a decade ago, he’s still hugely popular.

BeforeRASPUTIN

Tony Stark starts as an arrogant genius inheritor of a world-changing weapons manufacturer, Stark Industries. While the arrogant part of his personality takes a bit longer for him to adjust, his sense of responsibility for the world’s events begins when he is kidnapped and sees firsthand his company’s weapons being used in the Middle East to oppress innocent people.

After

ironman

This one is more impressive to kids if you go movie by movie.

  1. Iron Man – By the end of this movie, Tony realizes that he cannot differentiate himself from the new task that he has before him in protecting innocent people. The last line is one that allows him to take responsibility for his actions and to truly own the changes he has gone through in becoming a hero: “I am Iron Man.”
  2. Iron Man 2 – Tony starts this movie as a superhero, but an arrogant one. Bit by bit, this comes back to bite him as he first gets outdone by a man who figures out his tech from his broken down hut, followed by losing everyone close to him. He ends the movie a more humble hero, leading to…
  3. The Avengers – By the end of this movie, Tony readily sacrifices himself for the good of humanity. He lives, but not because he wasn’t ready to die. In fact, he spends the 3rd solo movie freaking out about how traumatic this experience was. No matter what you think the catalyst is for his change, it’s apparent that the Tony Stark of the 2008 movie would not be prepared to do what he does in this film.

There are more movies, but I’ve got three more characters to go. Don’t be greedy!

Oliver Queen/The Green Arrow

Oliver Queen is a famous DC hero, but most kids will know him from The CW’s hit series, Arrow, or if they watch any of the other three or four shows that take place in the same universe. Warning: If you’re watching this show, I spoil it brutally here.

Before

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There are some obvious character changes here when it comes to Oliver before and after his father’s yacht, The Queen’s Gambit, is shipwrecked, marooning Oliver on the remote island of Lian Yu. Before the shipwreck, he is a fun-loving, irresponsible, selfish man who took his long-term girlfriend’s sister on a cruise for several days. Scandalous. However, there are less obvious changes that make this character dynamic. After 5 years of being away from home, Oliver returns as a figure known as The Hood, and begins to “save the city” by doing whatever it takes to destroy its criminal element – including eliminating people on a list that his father leaves him. While this may sound badass and hero-ish, this literally makes him a serial killer.

After

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Over the course of seasons of the show, Oliver decides that the killing must stop. He also makes several changes regarding his life of deception, especially when it comes to who he should trust and what it means to be in a trusting relationship. This conflicts often with his life as “The Hood,” and later “The Arrow,” and then even later, once he stops killing, as “The Green Arrow.”

He also vacillates regarding how close he keeps the people around him, starting with his bodyguard, Diggle, who eventually becomes the hero “Spartan,” and Roy Harper, who becomes the Red Arrow (known in the show as Arsenal). By 2017, the show has a “Team Arrow,” composed of Wild Dog, Mr. Terrific, the third Black Canary, Spartan, and The Green Arrow himself. This is a big departure from Oliver’s tendency to go it alone.

This team is eventually broken up due to a breach of trust; Oliver suspects one of his team is a mole, which leads him to spy on the whole team. This shows the struggle that Oliver still has with trusting others. He eventually reconciles with the team, even though they agree to go separate ways.

Despite this apparent failure of this team, Oliver of 2018 is a lot more compassionate, trusting, and responsible. He is even elected as the Mayor of Star City.

This version of The Green Arrow draws a lot of comparisons to Batman. However, one should note that Batman’s character tends to NOT change, even as the events of the two plots begin to look similar.

Marlin

Yeah, I know you know this one. We all know this one. This one works because a lot of our high schoolers were like three or four years old when Finding Nemo came out, so they’ll get it.

Before

marlin

Marlin the clownfish is a paranoid, neurotic, single father who is terrified of the ocean and even more terrified of losing his son. This is mostly due to a traumatic incident in which a barracuda killed his wife and hundreds of his children, leaving only one survivor – his son, Nemo. As a result, Marlin is fiercely protective of Nemo, to the point that he stifles Nemo’s development. His fears are further exacerbated by Nemo’s apparent helplessness – one of his fins is tiny and underdeveloped (dubbed as Nemo’s “lucky fin”).

After

nemomarlin

When his son is picked up by divers, Marlin goes on a crazy odyssey to recover his son. He is forced to confront his fear of the ocean’s dangers, as well as confront the faults in his own parenting that led to this situation. This is further helped by his encounters with a regal blue tang named Dory, who tries to help him despite having a memory and attention span so short that she often requires the same type of supervision as a child. By the end of the movie, Marlin is more confident and assured of his own abilities as well as those of his son, and he happily allows his son to have experiences in childhood unmarred by fear. He also accepts Dory as part of the family, which displays his newfound openness and security, along with the development of his ability to trust.

Hopefully, between these four examples, you are able to successfully convey the concept of dynamic characters. I purposefully avoided famous literary characters, because I know pop culture references work better, plus now you can ask them yourself after talking about them with your class without you having given them the answer. I’ll write another soon, talking about some static characters you can use – these are remarkably a lot harder for some people to pull out nowadays.

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Life on the Sesame Street

“People on “Sesame Street” had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you “out” of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, “Sesame Street” suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off — taking baths, eating cookies, reading.” – Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times Magazine

You’ll definitely hear me harp on Sesame Street from time to time.  Sesame Street was a gift to my development as a child, teaching me lessons that I didn’t even know would be integral to life both as an adolescent and as an adult.

Here are some lessons that it taught me.

Put Down the Ducky

putdowntheduckie

This musical number is seemingly innocuous – like most of Sesame Street.  Ernie keeps hearing squeaking noises when he tries to play the saxophone, and it’s because he tries to play while holding onto his rubber duckie.  The song tells him to put down the duckie.

I was using the phrase “put down the duckie” long after I watched this is a child; it was clear to me that if something is preventing you from doing what you want to do, then you need to learn to let go of that thing in your life.  This can apply to bad habits, addiction… anything that keeps you from “playing the saxophone.”  Sure, you can learn to accomplish your goals while compensating for this weakness that you refuse to give up, but if you know deep down inside that it’s time to let go, you’ll still hear that little squeak when you play.

This metaphor mixes up a little bit with the lighter concept of “it’s okay to let go – if it’s good for you then you’ll be able to pick it up again.”  We know that Ernie’s relationship with the duckie is not in itself harmful – he just needs to let go of it for the moment.  His friend assures him “you can just pick it up when you’re done!”

Being Proud of Yourself Doesn’t Mean You Need to Bring Others Down

fuzzyandorange

This lesson needs to be taught more.  I hear so many people talk about how important it is to have pride.

“I’m proud to be [insert race here]!”

“I’m proud to be a [man/woman/other]!”

Then they go and disparage others.  “The white people do not understand blah blah”  “You’re cisgender so blah blah.”  “This meeting is only for [my group that I have pride in].”

In Fuzzy and Blue, Grover expresses his pride in being born fuzzy and blue. (“It’s just the way that I grew…”)  He is joined by Harry Monster, and then Cookie Monster (“me just so fuzzy and blue!”) who enter seamlessly.

Then comes Frazzle.  Frazzle is orange.  Frazzle is a very different addition to the Sesame Street cast – his appearance is extremely fierce, with bright orange fur, a strong, thick unibrow, and an inability to speak English without a thick gurgle that renders him incomprehensible to non-monster ears.  Grover is reluctant at first – or perhaps simply trying to comprehend the pull that Frazzle appears to feel for being involved in a song that is about pride in being blue.  (“All right, all right, just thought I’d mention it!”)  Then, although the song is practically over, they restart it for Frazzle and modify their refrain:

“We’re fuzzy and blue (and orange!)”

They do this with no outside prompting, no mediating parent, no supervisor, and no union intervention.  It’s true – pride in oneself is important, and that involves knowing what it is you’re proud of.  I can be proud of being tall – does that have to mean that I’m disparaging short people?  No.  Short people can be proud to be short, and I can agree with that pride without undermining my own pride.

Frazzle is different, and his friends support his difference and his pride in being different without any insecurity about themselves and what they value.

Interestingly, everything Frazzle says sounds the same (something directly addressed in the show).  Who hasn’t made that comment about a foreign language before?  Frazzle represents a foreign identity even to Sesame Street – which has monsters, but most of them are friendly colors.

Oscar the Grouch

Oscar

Oscar the Grouch makes it very apparent that Sesame Street is not a perfect place.  He is a misanthropic, grouchy monster that lives in a trash can.  He doesn’t enjoy anybody’s company, nor does he want anything to do with learning any lessons.

Oscar is as close as it gets to being a social pariah – my memory isn’t amazing, but as far as I can recall he is the only character whom other characters chide and to whom they even suggest that he needs to change his ways.  His life doesn’t look very nice, which could be a cautionary tale… or it could even suggest that Oscar is crying for help by making sure to surround himself with the people of Sesame Street.  Whichever it is, Oscar’s grouchiness doesn’t keep the people around him from talking to him or involving him in their conversations.

Sesame Street – with Oscar – is now a complete image.  It is not an idyllic, utopian place, it’s a ghetto.  Yet, the show is adamant that the place is amazing, with everyone wanting to know “how to get to Sesame Street.”  The people (and monsters) of Sesame Street aren’t trying to leave –  instead, their reaction to the hand they’ve been dealt is to watch each other’s backs.

The relevant links can be found below, but I want to take this opportunity to make a point.  I’m not saying Sesame Street is a gem to the world of television (it is, but I mean that it’s not my main point).  I’m saying that the kid shows you put your child in front of have lasting effects that go beyond the obvious – and certainly go beyond that stage of development.  We remember the things we see, and they DO stick with us.  So the next time you let TV do the babysitting… it’s worth thinking about what you’re letting your kid be inundated with.

Either that or communicate regularly with your child.  Crazy talk, I know.

NOTE: Old School Sesame Street and modern, HBO Sesame Street are not the same beasts.  As a result, some people argue that old school Sesame Street might not be suitable for children today, as a lot of the concerns modern parents have were not voiced or even present back then.  We’re talking a depressed talking elephant that only one character can see, a homeless misanthrope, and a scene where Cookie Monster eats a pipe.  If these sound shocking to you, then you know not to watch.  If it just sounds like pre-hipster age television, then enjoy.

Or again, you could show it and then just talk to your kids.

Relevant videos:

The Bathroom Issue

This debate is one that often transcends any single plane of argument.  One minute it’s about logistics, the next it’s about ethics.  The situation starts as a simple hypothetical: A student asks to use the restroom in the middle of your class, at a time when you’ve just started getting your class into gear.  What do you do?

Online, I’ve noticed that there are several lines drawn here.  Parents almost unanimously cry foul at a teacher’s refusal, citing human rights for why their angels should be allowed to use the restroom whenever they feel the need, and that furthermore, they shouldn’t feel pressured to put themselves out in any way upon feeling said urge – the teacher needs to just let them go and suck it up, they say.

Students feel the same way – “We’re young adults, you can’t tell us what to do.  Just go, no matter what the teacher says.”

Teachers are divided: Half say “Don’t let them go.”  The other half says “Go, you don’t want to get sued, especially if admin won’t back you up.”  Sad truth.

I will first tell you my bathroom policy, followed by my responses to these arguments.

I tell my students that my class is like a car ride, and that they need to go before they get in the car.  If they ask to use the restroom, I use Classcraft to take 10HP from them with a preset called “Go on your own time,” or I say “No.” until they ask again.  I do tell them that they are at my mercy, as in my class I am the Morning and Evening Star.

Is this a power trip?  No.  I will explain.

First of all, this argument needs to be put into context so that I don’t have a swarm of Common Sense Media parents clamoring for my execution.  I teach high school.  Young adults, they’re called.  Not elementary students.  My policy is based heavily on this factor.  The three skills that I focus on in my class are the same that I would want my own kids to develop as young adults, and they’re the same traits that pushed me into adulthood and maturity.  Students find that mastering these three things is the only thing they have to do to be sure they will do well in my class – the rest happens by itself, usually.

Phan’s Trinity of Maturity
  1. Managing Time
  2. Managing Priorities
  3. Managing Communication

At my school, students are given a passing period to use the restroom, etc. and of course breaks and lunch.  If students don’t use the restroom during this time, then they are not managing their time, and they are certainly not prioritizing their own well-being.

What about a medical condition or an emergency?

The contingency I do allow is reliant on the 3rd skill.  If you have a medical condition or an emergency, you need to adequately and effectively communicate it.  That’s just survival.

My child shouldn’t have to humiliate themselves in front of the class to use the restroom.

Then certainly it’s their job – or at the very least the PARENT’S job if the student is determined to be helpless – to tell the teacher ahead of time and work out some kind of signal system if they have a condition… I mean, it’s not like effectively conveying need in an emergency situation in a quick and efficient manner is a life skill or anything.

Communication is the major skill here, because I’m not a robot!  If you can convey the gravity of the situation, you probably have nothing to worry about.  It’s about knowing why the system is in place.  The system says nobody can go, but the system is not in place to stop people with full bladders.  It’s to facilitate learning.

If you need to pee and you’re not just trying to escape class because you’re bored, then you’ll have no worries, because you’ll have no problem finishing the sentence you’re on before going.  You won’t have any qualms about handing over your phone while you’re gone either, right?  Since you’ll be right back and it’s not like you were going to call your friends or tweet for 45 minutes and come back when the bell rings?

It’s messed up to take points away for having to use the bathroom in class!

If you really need to go, you can’t control it, right? It’s like having bad weather that cancels your practice.  If you take the hit, then work extra hard to make up for the hit!  That’s being responsible.  If you accidentally break something, you still own up.  If you have to go to the bathroom, it’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s not your classmates’ fault, so obviously it comes down to you to deal with the issue – and sometimes that means taking the hit.  You know what?  Life will go on.  I don’t know what the aversion is to losing points for things that aren’t anyone else’s problem.  That’s life.  If I’m paid by the hour for a job and an asteroid strikes my car and keeps me from going to work, I’m not going to insist I get paid anyway.  No, I take the hit.  If your dog eats your homework, you take the hit and then in the future you take better care of your homework – and your dog.

And as for the student insistence that they have the freedom to just “go, no matter what the teacher says?”  That’s true, you have that freedom.  A teacher won’t bodily stop you.  I can technically walk out of the classroom whenever I want, too.

You see, freedom comes only to those who accept the consequences.  If a teacher forbids you to go, and you need to go, then by all means go.  Then take the referral the teacher writes you, serve the detention, whine about it to your mom, and sleep soundly knowing you were in the right.  Then use your knowledge of your teacher’s jerk attitude and the system to avoid having to go in their class anymore.

As for getting sued… well, honestly, no teacher can do anything if they fear being sued.  My advice for that is usually just to be smart, be transparent, and always do your very best to do what’s right in your heart, and the world will have a hard time condemning you.

Yeah, sometimes I’m more naive than the students.  I don’t really see how anyone who isn’t an idealist in some fashion or another can become a teacher, though.

Yelling at the Ocean

During a staff collaboration, our department head showed us a TED talk by Eduardo Briceño that discussed the reason why people’s skills at their profession tended to plateau in skill despite large amounts of time being invested into their improvement.  Specifically, he said that the average person has two zones:

  • In the Learning Zone, people are relaxed and situations are very low-stakes.  The emphasis is on becoming better.
  • In the Performance Zone, the emphasis is on execution and evaluation, and the stakes are higher.

Briceño then stated that the problem is that most people almost always place themselves in the Performance Zone, and are seldom in the Learning Zone.  This is apparently impressed upon us at a young age: we are taught that school is evaluative through grades, and are often punished or docked for mistakes, enforcing the principle that mistakes are bad.  Furthermore, because the Performance Zone is one of judgment, not of improvement, the mistakes made are not used to improve any skills.

The first thing that came to mind when Briceño discussed a low-stakes situation Learning Zone was my time playing soccer.  More than any teacher making me spell and write repeatedly, my time playing soccer – especially with my father – taught me the importance of practice.

When I started playing soccer, I was typically awful.  However, about two or three years into playing the game, my skill level spiked suddenly.  This was not just due to maturity, or finally understanding the sport.  My kicks were powerful for my age, and I was able to aim the ball precisely – almost with x, y, and z-axis precision.  I was able to trap almost any ball flying toward me at my feet with a technique involving my shin.  These skills made me a valuable asset to my team, despite my lack of precise ball control as a dribbler.

SONY DSC
Demosthenes projecting his voice over the ocean.

As I reflect now, Briceño’s words color my experience with a new significance.  His example of the Learning Zone was made clearer by his reference to the orator Demosthenes, who practiced posture by suspending a sword blade above his shoulder, who spoke against the ocean on the beach to perfect his projection, and who put rocks in his mouth to master enunciation.  Individual skills were perfected and honed in ways that far surpassed the difficulty of what he was practicing for – but the situations were low stakes.  Nobody would know if he failed during these exercises but himself.

Soccer practice ran similarly.  No matter how much we begged for a scrimmage (essentially a simulation of an actual game), both my coach and my father would instead focus on drills, which were little tasks that perfected individual skills in preparation for the game.

“There’s no point in a scrimmage if you have no skill.” said my dad to me once in the car.  Essentially, using a soccer game to practice for a soccer game was limited in usefulness because it was a performance zone.  Drills were specialized in practice: We practiced dribbling.  We did sprints and liners to practice changing direction.  We did the Give-and-Go.  We juggled the ball with our feet.

When I reflect now, I realize that the things I spent the most time practicing with my dad (mostly because we couldn’t really run around) were my kick (shooting the ball with my father as the goaltender – he was better than any elementary kid would be) and my trap (my dad would always expect me to trap the ball – no self-respecting soccer player would do otherwise if a trap was possible.)

mgqo3r

Soccer practice was low-stakes but higher in difficulty.  If I missed a goal (you know, because my goaltender was a full-grown adult), I just had to try again.  Every time I missed a trap, I just had to run and get the ball.  There was no punishment. I practiced for way more hours than I ever played in a game.  I realize now that my father kept me in the Learning Zone.  Every time I tried to shoot a ball past my father, I was Demosthenes yelling at the ocean.  The drills that I performed faithfully improved my skills.  Accordingly, the drills that I performed less diligently – like running laps, dribbling, and ball-handling – did little to help me.

My skill plateaued eventually – and again, that’s easy to explain.  As I got older, I was shorter than a lot of my teammates.  When they did better than I did in practice, I was disheartened, instead of focusing on myself.  I practiced less with my father, and soon I only heard his feedback from watching my games.  Without realizing it, I had transformed my practice time into a Performance Zone.

Many parents make this same mistake with their child’s education.  Low grades are punished, average performance ignored, with only high performance receiving acknowledgment. – implicitly teaching that mistakes are bad.  If mistakes are bad, then everything is high-stakes, which makes school a Performance Zone, not a Learning Zone.

In addition, the social imperative mirrors this as well. For some reason, teenagers care what their peers think, to the point that their worst nightmare is to be caught in a vulnerable position.  The fear of becoming a social pariah as a consequence is about as high as stakes get, with teens tossing and dodging labels like “snitch” and “slut” in their day-to-day lives.  If you worry about what other people think, how can you be safe enough to make mistakes?

I’ve talked before about how we need to be uncomfortable.  In order to do that and get to sword-suspending and ocean-yelling, we need to identify our Performance Zones and our Learning Zones and treat them as such.  This is also why hobbies are a good idea: you can use the skills they give you in their assorted Learning Zones with your Performance Zone.  For example, rapping has been a low-stakes way of building confidence when speaking and demanding attention, which is something crucial when teaching teenagers.  It also expands my vocabulary and refines my pronunciation.  Blogging helps me with my writing skills and with expressing my thoughts in words, which is definitely an imperative for an ELA professional.

The concept of the Learning Zone is the rebuttal we’ve been looking for to the tired claim that you “don’t use what you learn in school anyway.”  Yes, you do!  Of course, problems aren’t like they were in school.  A school is a Learning Zone.  School tasks are drills.  School is yelling at the ocean.  Real life replaces the ocean with real people and raises the stakes – because now the waves can hear you or destroy you, and your words matter.

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.

 

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!