With new academic standards ratcheting up literacy expectations, many teachers are looking for ways to engage students more deeply in writing and reading assignments.
Lauren Leigh Kelly, an English teacher at Half Hollow Hills High School West in Dix Hills, N.Y., and an adjunct English instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University, has found that incorporating rap and hip-hop culture into the literacy curriculum can help connect instruction to students’ individual backgrounds and foster their interest in writing.
In 2011, Kelly designed a Hip-Hop Literature and Culture class at her school to engage students in the study of hip-hop texts, including songs, films, and music videos, as a means to develop media literacy and critical-analysis skills.
On the basis of the course, Kelly published an article this spring in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, published by the International Literacy Association, arguing that engaging with hip-hop texts in class can help students—and especially female students—reflect on their identities and hone their literacy skills.
“I wanted the students to walk away from this class with [literacy] skills that they can apply to anything beyond texts,” Kelly said in an interview. “There’s something about using hip-hop specifically because of the role that it plays in the world right now that leads to more developed understanding.”
Kelly’s Long Island school has a student body of approximately 1,500–40 percent of whom are students of color. In its initial iteration, her hip-hop class was taken by a small group of 11th and 12th graders, including both white and black students. The course focused on four thematic units: hip-hop and its roots, hip-hop history and culture, gender and hip-hop, and hip-hop and the world. Kelly’s curriculum aims to get students to look critically at texts with multiple “lenses” as a way of better understanding the cultural implications and social context of texts and their own lives.
The course encompassed class discussions, written reflections, critical reading, and analytical writing.
“So [I was] having them relook at the texts that they loved already or were curious about and ask really deep questions of them,” Kelly explained. “They were pulling out more questions, more evidence—they were looking at the voices that weren’t heard, like who are we not seeing or hearing and what would they be saying if we could.”
Writing was a key vehicle for students’ responses to the texts. Kelly assigned multiple composition projects over the semester to assess students’ understanding and analytical skills.
One assignment was a literary essay in which students looked at a text, read literary critiques, and then wrote their own critiques on the text based on their reading and reflections. Another required students to choose a topic related to the class units—such as race, socioeconomic class, or gender—and write a lesson for a class presentation to explore that topic and facilitate a dialogue with the rest of the students.
For the midterm assignment, students created a mixtape of at least 10 songs and wrote reflections for each track based on how it connected to the concepts, topics, and questions explored in class conversations. For the final project, students produced a hip-hop autobiography in the form of an essay, film, music album, or graphic representation. Most of the students chose to write the two-page-minimum essay.
Emily Chiariello, an independent education consultant who designed Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives for a Diverse America curriculum, said culturally relevant instruction of the sort used in Kelly’s hip-hop course can work well with the expectations set forth in the Common Core State Standards.
“The standards provide a huge amount of autonomy and flexibility in terms of the content that students are reading, and I see that as a good entry point to insert relevant and engaging texts and content that mean something to the students and that’s relevant to their culture and their communities,” she said. “There’s no better way to teach literary devices than through hip-hop. Personification, metaphors, similes, rhyme schemes, and more—there’s so much richness in hip-hop.”
Over the course of the semester, Kelly found that students’ written pieces became longer, more developed, and more critical. They went from writing brief responses and answering only the question they were asked, she said, to bringing in more questions, specific evidence, and other things that they noticed.
The quality of the students’ writing varied, but overall, their work became more detailed with clearer explanations of the significance of the students’ ideas, Kelly said.
“In their writing, they were able to really reflect on where they saw themselves in the music and where this music comes in their lives,” she said.
Kelly said that bringing hip-hop into instruction not only helped shape students’ writing, but it also helped them become more socially aware and engaged in the classroom. She believes that was partly the result of the class becoming more student-driven as the students began to bring in their own notes from home and to take a greater role in guiding the discussions.
“All I really provided was the opportunity by having the actual class where it happened and inviting them to bring in their lives and their full selves,” Kelly said. “Really, the students on their own introduced their histories, their experiences, some of the questions they were grappling with, and that became a part of the class texts and curriculum. It was tense at some moments, and difficult, but at the same time, very powerful for them to further explore those identities and for them to do it together.”
Ideally, Kelly said, high school students should be in the driver’s seat in their courses, leading and facilitating classroom instruction, but they can never do that if they feel like what they’re learning about isn’t connected to them.
“Students need to see themselves in what they’re reading and what they’re writing and what they’re doing in school ... otherwise it feels so pointless to them,” she said. “They need to feel like experts sometimes, they need to be able to teach each other about things, and it’s really hard to do when what they’re learning about has no bearing—or at least they don’t see it having any bearing—on their lives and they don’t see it as connecting to them.”
One of Kelly’s intellectual influences, David Stovall, a professor of educational policy studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that there are various ways to make such connections with students.
“I don’t put too much emphasis on the hip-hop but the relevance,” he said. “It could be Coolio’s music or rock metal. It’s looking at ways in which to engage young folks in ways that they find relevant, while also building skills and critical analysis. And that could be hip-hop and it could not be hip-hop.”
Kelly’s hip-hop course is currently offered only one semester every other year at her school. In the meantime, she has been contacted by professors, special education teachers, and elementary school teachers who want to know how her class can be transformed for different audiences. She’s also planning a hip-hop and poetry summit for New York City students in the winter as a way to help share experiences and engage in creative wordplay.
“It’s great to see how this is [showing] the power of hip-hop literacy to go across geographically and even across communities language wise, racially, and economically,” she said.
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