How to Reach and Teach Teenagers

Alan Sitomer has inspired teen-age students with his witty use of popular culture icons in comparison with literary greats. In doing so, he has inspired himself and other teachers to increase their efforts to reach disadvantaged students against all the odds of success.

Alan Sitomer is a three-time winner of the Teacher of the Year Award in California. This article is an excerpt from his book Teaching Teens & Reaping Results.

This was the moment that I decided that everything I would do with hip-hop in the classroom would be entirely free of profanity, homophobia, and misogyny. In truth, I saw these terms as great vocabulary words I could teach to my kids with a ton of wonderful ideas to explore, but come on, I told myself, this ain't MTV I'm doing here. That's why I immediately set a high standard for what was appropriate for classroom use and made sure not to deviate from this academic line.

I walked into my room and as soon as the bell rang, I asked, "Who wants to study some hip-hop?" Immediately, I had 100 percent engagement from 100 percent of the students. Even the kids in the back row, you know the kind-the asocial, mute, antidisestablishmentarianists who always wear sweatshirt hoodies draped over their heads like Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. It turned out that these young people were not stricken with a rare tongue disease that prevented vocalization at all. In fact, it turned out they were intelligent, thoughtful, passionate students with definite points of view on a whole host of topics.And suddenly they'd become eager to share. My teens had become engaged. Authentically .

It was, however, at this moment that I realized I was standing at a precipice,a place between two worlds. It was, and I don't use this word lightly,my epiphany. Hip-hop could be used as a tool to revolutionize academic success for disengaged teens while building a bridge to the classic curriculum of the language arts class. What's more, through hip-hop, I could tackle the mandated learning objectives of our state and nation.

I told my students how there was not a single adult I knew who had not been kicked in the pit of the stomach by life at some point, yet somehow,somewhere, they had all learned to dig deep, to reach down, to get backup, and to forge on in spite of life's spectacular ability to dish out complicated and emotional pain.That's what Tupac was talking about. That's what Dylan Thomas was talking about. That's why we study classic literature in the first place, I believe, because it's the place where the greatest thinkers in the history of humanity are passing down their wisdom, strength, and knowledge so we can find inspiration in our darkest nights...

I sat back and realized that one of the biggest problems I face as an educator is that when you teach in classes as large as the ones I do, there is simply no way to know all of the things that are going on in all of your students' lives. Schools have, to some degree, become like a factory, with too many kids slipping through too many cracks despite the best efforts of many, many hardworking people. But hip-hop had allowed me to get through, to seal the cracks-in a way more powerful than anything I had ever possibly imagined. LaToya hadn't just read a poem; she had seen her own life reflected in the work of a celebrated literary artist and taken deep meaning from the text, so much so that it altered the course of her own future for the better.

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