At this year’s SXSWedu conference in Austin, Urban Arts Partnership’s James Miles, Fresh Ed program director and NYU professor, led a discussion about how hip-hop can be integrated into classrooms and serve as a powerful teaching method for educators who want to reach their students in a meaningful way. Joining Miles in this panel discussion were Audra The Rapper, Hudson County, New Jersey Teacher and Author Brian Mooney, and Rapper, Producer and Educator John Robinson who confronted the ways in which hip-hop can make a difference in and out of the classroom.
Beyond the direct connection teachers can make between the four elements of hip-hop and class lessons, James Miles detailed one way he has incorporated the trajectory of a hip-hop artist — a topic students can relate to — to engage them and help them retain information on a topic they’re not too familiar with:
“Hip-hop allows us to look at those things — communities, groups — that have been marginalized and silenced for too long,” Mooney noted.
In using hip-hop, students are able to identify with the founding members who look like them or have experienced a similar upbringing. Now, the panelists explain, the student least likely to participate and engage is now in the forefront of the conversation because of the culturally responsive teaching method being used in class.
“Without that, an entire group of students are left out. We have to change that,” John Robinson said.
Fresh Ed, a program within a larger initiative at UAP called Fresh Education, is helping to make that change by serving middle school students and training classroom teachers in their pedagogy. Fresh Prep, its sister program, serves high school students taking the ELA, Global History, and U.S. History Regents exams. Both programs are proving how powerful hip-hop can be as a learning tool.
According to Fresh Ed Director James Miles, New York City’s current student pass rate for the Global History Regents Exam is 45 percent while students who have Fresh Education and learn through hip-hop have a pass rate of 61 percent.
Teachers must understand the medium through which the piece of content — a play, a book, a movie — is expressed and delve into the themes such as immigration or political activism and confront why the piece is being expressed in a certain way; is it because of racial tensions? If so, why? Why are all of the characters only people of color? What is the historical context to all of it? Who is the intended audience?
Those questions spark larger, meaningful conversations that will improve students’ critical consciousness and media literacy. The goal in doing this is to help students move out into the world and look at everything more critically and see systems, subcultures and imagery around them and understand the who, what, where, when, why of it all. Hip-hop questions the norm.
Lastly, hip-hop, like life, is full of contradictions. Learning is indeed a complicated, ambiguous process with no clear cut rules or approach. While much of mainstream hip-hop has themes of homophobia, sexism and misogyny, it isn’t hip-hop that created any of it — hip-hop is simply a reflection of the current culture. Football, movies, and other pop culture favorites also have negative aspects. The panelists express the importance of allowing students to critique systems of oppression that permeate the world by listening to what’s on the radio too.
“We as educators have to have the moral and intellectual courage to ask questions about why it is how it is,”
Mooney says, and then have the courage to do it.