Caught in “The Trap”: How Viral Hip-Hop Education Videos Miss the Point

The newest spate of “inspirational” videos making their rounds on news outlets and social media demonstrate that we still have a long way to go in the journey toward meaningful education.

Welcome to the 4th Grade — Mr. Dwayne Reed (YouTube)

As an educator, hip-hop aficionado, and academic researcher that studies the intersection of both, the beginning of a new school year means one thing: my social media timelines are inundated by people tagging me on the latest and greatest inspirational teaching videos. Take a look Here Here and Here for examples.

I am all for acts of creativity, joy, celebration, and engagement when it comes to public education. So much of contemporary schooling is obsessed with performance, outcomes, and measurement that it is leading to a crisis in mental health in many students. With such a focus on literally testing students to death, it is understandable that any signs of life would be welcome and even encouraged. But in looking for something that works, that connects kids with the wonders and beauty of learning, we must also be critical. I often tell my undergraduate education students that they, “wouldn’t take candy from a stranger and eat it without careful, critical examination” so why shouldn’t the same be true for the media and messages we consume especially in a field as important as education? And as I look at the ingredient list of these videos being passed around, I’m concerned at what I see.

Hot Beat, Whack Lyrics

For many of these videos, the beat comes first. For example, videos of teachers taking up the #sogonechallenge start with Monica’s 2003 hit and seem to join the likes of Chance the Rapper as a fun, engaging, expressive method of self-expression. Now, the idea of the beat mattering more than the message is certainly not a new one, and is one that is embraced in some corners of hip-hop culture. Just ask L’il Yachty. And I’m not here to be the arbiter of “real hip-hop”, however when educators jump on a trend with lyrics that include, “Now all you little kiddies makin’ so-gone raps/but when you in my classroom all you wanna do is nap/where did all this come from all this creativity/ask y’all to write a paper all you do is look at me”, it’s time to hit the pause button and reflect.

The message in this video is no different than the thousands of deficit messages students, and in particular students of color, are bombarded with on a daily basis. The silencing of their voices and inattention to their academic, social, and emotional situations are only papered over with efforts like these. No effort is given to invite students into the work of learning, only a toxic “tough love” approach that says they could do real work if they put their minds to it.

In another example, the teacher sings to the strains of Rihanna’s Work, “I’m gonna make you work, work, work, work, work” and extolling the values of coming to class and paying attention backed by Fifth Harmony reminding students that she “doesn’t accept late work” so don’t leave your work at home. Get it? While the mode of delivery may have been remixed, the message remains the same: Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and if you don’t make it, it’s because of a personal shortcoming.

These examples do not take hip-hop culture seriously as a means of connecting and empowering youth or creating knowledge, but instead see it as means to capture momentary attention to point students toward something deemed somehow more important. Hip-hop here is the candy coating to a poison pill.

Energy, Enthusiasm, and a Quan-dry

Another theme I noticed that differed from the aggressive disconnect and condescension was that of hip-hop culture as cheerful, surface aesthetic. In Mr. Clark and Mr. Green’s offerings they are clearly culturally conversant in the languages of their students. As Ron Clark Academy students “hit the quan” both he and they are clearly enjoying themselves and are engaged in a community moment. Likewise, Mr. Green possesses the talent, lyrical skill, and cultural background knowledge to create a stylish music video brimming with energy, creativity, and humor. When this teacher choreographed an entire routine to Uptown Funk it clearly took a significant amount of time, effort, and energy. So, what’s the issue? My concerns are multiple here. The first deals the question of what happens in these once the cameras stop rolling? The second, is with how each of these videos was received, celebrated, and perhaps replicated.

First, The Ron Clark Academy bears the name of the teacher in the center of the Quan video. It’s a well-funded privately run institution in the heart of Atlanta, GA one of hip-hop culture’s taproots. While the dancing is spectacular and certainly entertaining, perhaps even inspirational, the focus is ultimately on Clark and his moves. Take a moment and remove him in your mind’s eye. Would this video have garnered nearly the attention?

Likewise, in the Uptown Funk dubsmash the focus is on the teacher. And while the school community is invested in pulling off an impressive “one-shot” music video, it is the supposedly bizarre notion that an olde-timey teacher is somehow culturally connected with his students that draws eyes and clicks. My concern is that the point here in these examples is that there is a vision that the teacher, possessing funds of real knowledge, has deigned to communicate with the exoticized native tribes in their own language so that they might be saved by so-called civilizing influences. Seeing only the White teacher dancing around his (or her) Black students ignores centuries of history connected to various cultures and reduces them to a performance. These videos in particular discount the genius of students and youth culture by showing them as fun, but un-serious. As a neat place to visit, but not a place to live. They have growing up to do and fortunately kindhearted grown-ups to show them how. Again, their voices take second stage.

Second, Welcome to the Fourth Grade (top) is slickly produced, cleverly written, choreographed and full of vitality. Cheery and humorous, it has been widely shared and well received as “what a teacher should be like”. Hailing from Chicago, this first year teacher drew tremendous amounts of praise online and in the media for his efforts to breathe new life into the standard introductory newsletter. Its energy is as infectious as the melody and I do not want to take away from the optimism and enthusiasm that this video so clearly showcases. At the same time, it is important to take a closer look to see how it functions in the larger scheme of things. What is its function and what does it accomplish? Why are people responding to this piece in this particular way and who are they?

It is abundantly clear that this teacher is passionate about his work as an elementary educator, and teachers of color matter tremendously. But the nearly universal adoration makes me wonder where the room to question lines like “absolutely no daydreamin’” lies. Further, while he does not portray his fourth grade students in a negative light, he nonetheless demonstrates that student culture is to be used in service of more serious-minded learning as in the case of writing science songs “to remember what you hear” and that “following the rules” is of paramount importance.

This is not discounting the value of hard work, or even following the rules. Instead it is important to take a nuanced look at what students are being asked to think about themselves, their culture, and education. This song’s text absent the flashy production and clever wordplay boils down to “work hard, reading, science, math, no daydreaming.” While students are promised “worthwhile” lessons, it is fair to stop and ask what will they be doing that actually generates lasting knowledge and a love of learning? How will they connect their lived experiences to the content of the classroom that allows them to consider who they are, where they are going, and why?

I am also a bit concerned about the response this video has been garnering. This is, of course, out of the teacher’s hands, but is very real nonetheless. The near universal acclaim is disconcerting for me because it belies a larger problem with how the public views the art of education. The number of responses along the lines of “I wish you were my teacher” or “where were you 25 years ago?” indicate that for many the most desirable thing for a teacher to be is a good performer, affable, and kind. The passion so clearly evident in this video is considered aberrant or abnormal as an idealized version of what a teacher should be rather than what they actually are.

Lighten Up, Bro

It might seem like an extraordinary waste of digital ink to engage in criticism of these videos. Hot takes and thinkpieces are what drive digital content, and I have rolled my eyes at more than one. But then I think of Puff Daddy and Steve Perry starting a charter school in Harlem I come back to notions of engagement and the work educators undertake.

When hip-hop and youth culture are reduced to simple performances or products, and engagement is seen as a hybrid of keeping kids entertained and respectable in the eyes of the status quo, I find these videos and the ideologies expressed in or supported by them to be more than a little alarming. They reveal an institutional desire to control bodies and demand compliance. This strips students of the ability to advocate for themselves, to think critically, and to question the world and their place in it.

When education is about reproduction of a discrete set of skills and products rather than about curiosity, knowledge production, and generative knowledge, and student engagement is measured by who is quiet and/or smiling, and conforms to certain ideas of success it becomes possible to imagine circumstances wherein a school established by a hip-hop mogul and anti-union, pro-privatization entrepreneur would not only be possible, but welcomed.

About That Life…

So what then should educators interested in connecting with students on their own terms do? If hip-hop culture is the lingua franca of contemporary youth, how do teachers engage in this culturally relevant form of teaching?

The first question is what is trying to be accomplished in this classroom? Is the structure, purpose, and vision of the classroom one that effectively marginalizes or silences student voice and culture except this time uses a dope beat? In the Antebellum south in the United States there was the myth of the happy slave where those enslaved peoples were expected to put on a happy face and to sing during field work to put on a facade that their conditions were something other than murderous and brutal. So it is important to ask the question as to the end goal of a particular classroom. Is the point more of the same or is it something else entirely? Is the purpose of hip-hop culture’s presence in the classroom a gimmick? Is it merely Schoolhouse Rocks? Is the vision for hip-hop culture’s presence in the classroom instead transformational, relational, humanizing, and democratic?

Perhaps, it looks like the Hip-Hop Therapy program at New Visions Charter School in New York where the school’s counselor devotes time, effort, energy, and resources to developing relationships with students and attending to academic success, artistic expression, and emotional wellbeing.

Or perhaps it’s like the environment for students attending High Tech High in New Jersey, who were visited by rapper Kendrick Lamar. The teacher recognized that hip-hop culture is how students make meaning in contemporary society and rather and creates an environment that not only welcomes hip-hop culture into the classroom, but sees it as worthy of study in and of itself rather than a means to examine traditionally accepted texts.

Or maybe it’s an altogether new space for collaboration. Established several years ago by Columbia University Associate Professor Christopher Emdin along with other like-minded teachers, educators from around the globe log onto Twitter every Tuesday night at 9pm EST, following the hashtag #hiphoped to exchange ideas, philosophies, and notions of meaningful and democratic educational practices.

These videos do many things right and I have no doubt that the intentions behind each are good. In fact, it is my understanding that many of these teachers are essentially well beloved by students that see them on a daily basis. There is certainly something to be said the importance of forging a social connection and being familiar with the lived experiences of students, however the path to a more vibrant democracy and to flourishing lives for those most often ignored doesn’t come simply from knowing Drake lyrics or posting a hot 16 to YouTube.

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