Teaching Profession Teacher Leaders Network

How Jay-Z Can Help Us Remix Education

By José Vilson — September 27, 2011 6 min read
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Recently, I bought “Watch The Throne,” Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album. Since Jay-Z’s debut album “Reasonable Doubt,” he’s undergone a metamorphosis: from a young spitfire to a mature statesman, reigning over the hip-hop community lyrically and industrially. Meanwhile, all 15 of his albums to date have gone platinum. His keen business sense, quiet charisma, and almost imperturbable demeanor have kept his solo career afloat for more than fifteen years.

Jay-Z “broke out” at 25, at about the same age many lifetime educators start our careers. Most of us will never accumulate a net worth of $450 million, but we can meet ambitious goals as teachers. And I think we can learn a great deal from this hip-hop figure:

Keep the Language Simple—and the Context Deep

Jay-Z’s debut album was lauded by fans for its texture and complexity. The album analyzed urban life in the 1980s and 90s and incorporated deft and engaging storytelling. It also kept him from reaching a broader base of listeners. So Jay-Z shifted things for his next album—he simplified the language but kept the context deep.

What’s the take-away for us as educators? We want all students to fulfill high academic expectations, but we must balance this with the need to meet our students at their level. I often hear educators refer to this as an “either/or” situation—but we can provide the “and.” We can speak in language our students will understand without sacrificing the meaning, context, and depth of what we teach.

It’s worth noting that Jay-Z was accused of ‘selling out’ when he simplified the language in which he articulated his experiences. However, ultimately, he reached many more listeners, and his real fans respected his growth. As teachers, we may experience some pushback from peers who are unwilling to meet their students halfway, but if we engage students in meaningful learning, helping them to master critical concepts, we will have done our jobs well.

Consistently Good Performance Is a Sustainable Goal.

As in any other subculture, rap aficionados argue about which rapper has produced the most impressive output. Jay-Z has cited Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac as “greats"—and his career is often compared with theirs. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac met untimely deaths in 1997, so comparisons are limited. But Nas’ “Illmatic” is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Few hip-hop fans believe any of Jay-Z’s albums are of the same caliber, yet Jay-Z has released a consistent stream of critically acclaimed albums—while Nas’ career hasn’t flourished.

As teachers, we cannot expect to perform perfectly for every period of every day of the school year: Such unrealistic hopes can lead only to utter disappointment and early burnout. Unfortunately, perfectionistic tendencies can often be intensified by the pressures of high-stakes accountability systems. That’s why we must gird ourselves for the long haul, developing mindsets, skills, and innovations that will enable us to sustain our careers.

Jay-Z has made plenty of mistakes. When he challenged the most prominent MCs in Queens (Nas and Mobb Deep) with his song “Takeover,” he fed fans who were hungry for feuds—and initiated an ugly back-and-forth with Nas. In other instances, Jay-Z tried too hard to land in the pop category (“Sunshine”), let others outshine him on his own songs (Eminem in “Renegade”), and responded to haters who only sought to boost their own album sales (Jim Jones). These missteps didn’t end Jay-Z’s career—he learned from them.

All teachers make mistakes. At the end of the day, we have regrets. We didn’t listen to a student when we should have. We didn’t take advantage of a professional development opportunity. We could have better planned a lesson. None of these mistakes will break us—unless we fail to learn from them and they become patterns in our careers.

First-year teachers, take heed: A terrible day doesn’t signal a personal Armageddon. Instead, it’s a great opportunity to be thoughtful about regenerating the confidence students have in you. As long as we’re willing to get back into the game, the game can become ours.

Collaborate With Diverse Partners

Jay-Z understands that his professional place in the hip-hop universe is strengthened by diverse, visible collaborations—often with unlikely partners. He’s made an album with rock band Linkin Park (“Collision Course”) and has lent his voice to the albums of a wide range of artists, from Juvenile and Drake to Lenny Kravitz and Coldplay. He even invited Gwyneth Paltrow to sing the hook to “Song Cry” at a recent London show.

Just as Jay-Z enriches his solo work by collaborating with others, we can enliven our teaching by drawing on the expertise of our peers. Unexpected combinations can be especially productive, encouraging students to see a concept from an alternative perspective. Math teachers can draw upon social studies texts as we teach students to graph on a coordinate plane. Science and language arts teachers can co-create lessons that help students identify and use literary techniques as they read and respond to science texts. But however collaboration looks, its goal should always be to improve students’ experiences in our classrooms.

Escape Silos and Spread Our Expertise

Jay-Z finds ways to use his talents beyond the recording studio. He collaborated with author Dream Hampton to write Decoded. He is an entrepreneur, co-owning the 40/40 Club (an upscale sports bar and lounge with locations in five major cities) and the New Jersey (soon-to-be Brooklyn) Nets. He worked with President Barack Obama on his election efforts and pledged money and time to United Nations’ efforts in the continent of Africa. And—even as these efforts move forward—he keeps pushing out rap albums.

Obviously, Jay-Z doesn’t worry much about silos. Yes, he’s wealthy and has a certain amount of power that may ease the way. But he can still serve as a source of inspiration for teachers who want to push past the silos of our classrooms.

Right now, teachers across the nation are going above and beyond our responsibilities to benefit our students: developing online professional learning communities, fine-tuning our schools’ curricula, and connecting students’ families to community resources.

What if accomplished educators’ jobs could be restructured, enabling us to use and spread our expertise in innovative ways while also keeping one foot in the classroom? To draw on the Jay-Z comparison, what if we could make a greater impact on our world—while continuing to record rap albums?

In Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools … Now and in the Future, I collaborated with 11 classroom teachers and Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, to outline a hopeful vision for the future of education. We wrote about teacherpreneur roles that enable teachers to spend half of their time working with students and the other half solving our schools’ most pressing problems. It’s not surprising the teacherpreneur idea is gaining traction, thanks to the work of teacher leaders like Vicki Davis (who first coined the term) along with Ariel Sacks and Dave Orphal (who have imagined what teacherpreneurs could accomplish).

But we cannot wait for systemic changes—we must make them happen, cultivating our own policy voices and helping develop blueprints for improving our schools. School structures and policies have inhibited creativity for decades, with no real results for our students. It’s time for autonomy and artistry to “trend” in education, much as Jay-Z does on our favorite social networks.

Sometimes we can find the best models in the unlikeliest of places.


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