Let’s be honest. Some of your students are reluctant readers. Actually, reluctant is a euphemism. My students often say they hate books. And why shouldn’t they? Many of them read below grade level and have been prodded, tested, and even belittled for their reading ability.
Action-adventure movies? Now that speaks to them. Downloading music? That engages them. Deconstructing narrative fiction as we analyze the literary device of similes? Some days I could actually hear snoring before their heads hit the desks.
Then one day, I used hip-hop.
In no time we were discussing everything from sexism to inequality between the rich and poor. We wrote essays, we read texts, and we held debates. And my students were with me the whole way. They were insightful, passionate, and vocal in class. In addition to their enthusiasm, there was an added bonus: I was knocking down Language Arts standards as if they were bowling pins and I was a championship bowler.
Since then, I’ve become a believer in using hip-hop in the classroom. Here are five lessons I’ve learned, which I hope you can apply to your own curriculum.
1. Target your academic objectives. Just as you can study the subtext, figurative language, rhyme scheme, or historical perspective of a Langston Hughes poem, you can study a variety of literary elements in most hip-hop music. However, trying to tackle all of the elements often spreads lessons too thin. It’s very easy to have the class digress into a free-for-all about every rapper under the sun. Sure, engagement is great, but every ship needs a captain—and every captain needs a compass. Therefore, when teaching hip-hop, make sure you’ve planned an academic focus before you embark on the lesson. Seek one or two in-depth core objectives and use them as your North Star for teaching.
2. Choose music carefully. Use only music that is free of profanity, racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Introduce these important vocabulary words at the start of any hip-hop unit. Emphasize that hip-hop is not solely “gangsta rap” and that when it began in New York, it was a means of sharing how people can rise up and make something positive out of their lives. Like many other arts, it morphed from there. However, there are many positive artists working in the genre (see “Hip-Hop and the Classics”). Studying hip-hop from a critical perspective requires a serious approach. When you speak to hip-hop as such, experience has shown that students will follow your lead and you will avoid “issues” long before they happen.
3. Provide classic poetry. Intimidated by finding appropriate music? Then let your students provide the hip-hop. You do not need to be an aficionado to bring hip-hop into your class. Teach a piece of classic poetry to the class, illuminating whatever poetic devices you wish. Then, invite students to bring in an excerpt of their favorite hip-hop song (a “clean” passage, as per tip #2) and have the students evaluate the lyrics for similarities and differences to the classic poem. For example, you might study the poem, “Harlem: A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes and teach the class about imagery, rhyme scheme, and implied messages in the text. Afterwards, challenge students to analyze those same elements found in their hip-hop songs.
4. Let your students teach you. Why does a biography report have to be about Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King? Why not study Jay-Z (a hip-hop superstar who has made the transition to CEO of a gigantic record label)? Kids will relish the opportunity to teach you and the entire class about people and issues they find personally meaningful. Try having students create their own PowerPoint presentations about hip-hop culture. This will allow you to incorporate technology while tackling other academic objectives.
5. Be real. The standards are boring. But great education is not! Don’t just go to the textbook—deal with favorite pieces of literature. Explain why you love a poem. Explain what you think it says and why you are a better person for having read it. Then challenge your students to do the same with their hip-hop pieces. Mixing in mini-lessons about personification is easy once the educational fire is ignited. Just give your students the space to be the young adults they really are. Genuine learning will have taken place, and the joy you experience will re-kindle the reasons you became a teacher in the first place. It is awesome to work with kids—using hip-hop will help you remember that.
Hip-Hop and the Classics
Here are pairings Sitomer suggests in Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics. For more, visit his Web site .
Classic poem: “Ain’t I a Woman,” by Sojourner Truth
Pair it with: “For Women,” by Talib Kwelin
Classic poem: “Harlem: A Dream Deferred,” by Langston Hughes
Pair it with: “Juicy,” by Notorious B.I.G.
Classic poem: “If,” by Rudyard Kipling
Pair it with: “How Many,” by Zion In
Classic poem: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas
Pair it with: “Me Against the World,” by Tupac Shakur