Capable but disengaged learners embrace hip-hop education and flourish.

Yo, I Used Hip-Hop in My Class — and it worked!

Who will ever forget the Sunday night before their first day of school as a teacher? Fantastical visions filled with Socratic splendor, peer camaraderie and intellectually hungry students plunging themselves into pools of bookish beauty as I awakened my classes to the power and magic of “literature” raced through my head (all to the soundtrack of the movie Lean on Me, of course).

Then on Monday morning, reality it. Actually, it didn’t just hit, it smacked me in the face, kicked me in the groin and made me want to call in sick for the next 179 days. My students, I discovered, would rather visit the dentist than immerse themselves in the “classic” curriculum of English class. What was I to do?

I did what all intelligent people who are faced with perplexing dilemmas do. I denied there was a problem, buried my head in the sand and spent a tremendous amount of effort trying to force a very square peg into a very round hole. After all, I had to teach the “classics”, didn’t I? I mean, they had been taught to me. And the people who taught it to me had had them taught to them. I wasn’t just an educator, I was a Torch Bearer, an illuminator of wisdom, the last defense against illiteracy, anarchy and the apocalypse, right? To deviate would be heresy, so I became the English teacher version of Sisyphus, pushing a book up a hill I knew was going to roll right back down. Frustration, disillusionment and aggravation soon took over.

Finally, I followed in the footsteps of another great pedagogical tradition, doing what all great educators do at some point in their fine and distinguished careers. I went home, cried, and gobbled down quarts and quarts of Haagen Daaz. (I swear there’s magic in those fattening little buckets.)

Comfort for a teacher’s toughest moments.

Then, hungover from a sweets overload, I returned to school the next day determined to deeply delve into the question as to why my students were so reluctant to embrace books.

Actually, using the word “reluctant” is a euphemism. My students overtly HATED books. And why not, I soon discovered. Most of them read years below their grade level, suffered a personal history of unequivocal failure with the written word and had been perpetually ostracized, shamed and belittled for their ability (or lack thereof) to work with typed, black ink on a rectangular page ever since they could remember.

Action-adventure movies? Now that spoke to them. Downloading music while chatting with friends on their cell phones? Now that engaged them. Deconstructing fiction as we analyzed the literary device of similes? Some days I could actually hear the snoring before their heads hit the desks.

Then one day, I used hip-hop.

A cultural revolution with the power to change lives for the better.

From the very first moment I announced what we’d be doing, I had 100% engagement from 100% of the students. Even the kids in the back row, you know the kind, the asocial, mute, antidisestablishmentarianists (side-note: I always wanted to use that word in a sentence) who always wore sweatshirt hoodies draped over their heads like Obie Wan Kenobie from Star Wars. It turned out that they were not stricken with a rare tongue disease which prevented the vocalization of their mental power at all. In fact, it turned out they were often intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive students with definite points of view on a whole host of topics who were eager to share their thoughts. Needless to say, I was both surprised and impressed.

Once I got the hip-hop flowin’ (hey, you gotta use da’ slang), class was magic. I used Tupac Shakur to connect to Dylan Thomas. I used Jay-Z to connect to Langston Hughes. I used Kendrick Lamar to connect to Lord Alfred Tennyson. In no time flat we were covering a wide array of subject matters, from sexism in contemporary culture to iniquity between the rich and poor, to materialism vs. character based values. We were writing essays, we were reading texts, we were incorporating cooperative learning groups into the structure of the classroom. And happily I can report my students were right there with me the whole way. They offered insight, they offered passion, they offered themselves, even as I assigned oral presentations, persuasive essays, and classroom debates. Plus, there was an added bonus to everything I was doing: I was knocking down Language Arts standards as if they were bowling pins on a greased-up alley.

“Using hip-hop in the class was most definitely da’ bomb,” I thought. No, the mountain wouldn’t come to Mohammed, but yes, Mohammed could indeed go to the mountain. Hip-hop could be my greatest ally.

And I decided more teachers needed to know about it.

After all, I had tapped into an immense strength which allowed me to connect with my students in a manner that empowered me to illuminate the universal themes of the “classic” curriculum via the tool of modern music and culture. My class undeniably blazed with energy. The exchange of ideas was undeniably powerful. The critical thinking was palpable, the passion in the students work was obvious and the desire to pursue this avenue as a means for me to teach more and more of the Language Arts skills I was hired to promulgate was self-evident.

As it turns out, using hip-hop in my class did nothing less than change the entire course of my career. Aside from the success with my students which I enjoyed as an inner-city school teacher, I am now the author of a variety of books for both young adults and fellow educators, books that many schools across the nation are using in their own classrooms. Additionally, what started out as a means by which I could de-mystify the “classics” for my students has paradoxically turned out to be a means by which I could also de-mystify “hip-hop” for teachers, parents and educators across the country.

It actually carved a path to me being named California Teacher of the Year Award Winner.

Alan Sitomer is named California Teacher of the Year by the State Superintendent of Education.

Needless to say, this journey has been, “off the chains, ya know?”

Yet, if I am going to advocate for using hip-hop in the classroom, I must first debunk some misperceptions. After all, many false assumptions and stereotypes about the use of hip-hop in a classroom exist and lots of teachers are wary about what I am suggesting for fear of the subject matter.

Number one, everything I did was free of profanity, homophobia and misogyny. When most educators first hear this, they are both surprised and impressed. “Well,” I always think to myself, “What do you expect? I was a fully credentialed teacher immersed in the educational objective of trying to get my students to raise their academic accomplishments. What I’m doing here is most certainly not You Tube at 1:00 a.m.”

After all, I worked in a classroom (not in an alley or in a park or on a front stoop) and there is a level of professionalism society should be able to expect from me (and their teachers). Additionally, hip-hop is NOT “gangsta rap”. The true essence of hip-hop is, in my estimation, based in positivity.

Hip-Hop can be a positive force for America’s youth.

As a musical and cultural genre, hip-hop was born in New York in the 1970's in the spirit of rising up and beating the streets. Its origins celebrated the tenets of community, hope, fun, and inner fortitude. As it became more popular, it also became more diverse. However, the aforementioned “positive” qualities are the ones — the only ones — on which I focus.

And, my experience has shown me that these “positive qualities” are also the elements to which the students best relate and want to work with (which, by extension, makes using hip-hop in the classroom relevant).

Relevance is, therefore, one of three primary reasons why using hip-hop in the class works. When students see their own lives directly reflected in the academic materials they are being asked to study, they are significantly more open to intrinsically embracing their classroom work. This, of course, means that they will be more internally motivated to participate in classroom activities. As any teacher knows, external motivation (i.e. holding grades over their heads as a reason to do class work) is always an inferior solution when contrasted with getting students internally motivated to participate in English class. Once teachers recognize that “being hip-hop” is how many students see themselves — it’s who they are, it’s what they know, it’s who they aspire to be — they can see hip-hop not as a thorn in their side with which they have to contend outside of their curriculum but rather as an ally in the plight to advance the literacy skills of their students. One must remember, like it or not, hip-hop is incredibly meaningful to today’s kids and to de-value and/or dismiss it is to de-value and/or dismiss the students themselves.

Hardly a recipe for success in the classroom, is it?

On the other hand, when teachers open their hearts (and their lesson plans) to embracing hip-hop, they are, by extension valuing their students’ identities. For some kids, using hip-hop in the class might be the first time that classroom validation has ever been felt by some of them. Sadly, too many of today’s kids feel de-valued by their community, by the adults in their lives and by their schools. Hey, kids aren’t dumb. They see that they are being jammed into classes at student to teacher ratios of 38 to 1. They see the perpetual budget issues which hamper education. They see the frazzled administrators, the cynical teachers and the images of what “other” schools in the more affluent sections of town look like. The teacher who uses hip-hop in the class isn’t just implementing a gimmick to get their student’s attention; they are acknowledging their kids as worthwhile human beings whose interests and ideas are relevant and deserving of having their voice heard. Ultimately, when framed in this manner, using hip-hop in the class can be very powerful.

Using hip-hop in the class also works is because it is a fantastic tool for building bridges of accessibility to the “classic” curriculum. Once again, let me be clear: in no way am I advocating that we replace the traditional texts we utilize in school. (Hey, I’m a Torch Bearer, right?) However, as teachers it is incumbent upon us to build bridges of accessibility to our classroom texts in order for our kids to have a better chance at being successful in the world of Language Arts. If there is one common thread which unites English teachers across the nation, it is that more and more of our students are reading below grade level.

The data.

Therefore, if grade level texts are beyond the ability of a good chunk of our contemporary students, don’t we need a bridge built, a ladder if you will, to these works so that our students can move from where they currently are to where we want them to be? Classroom education is not sink or swim. Only a fool (or law school) uses that approach. Our task as educators is to take kids, no matter what their status, to a higher, more improved, more sophisticated, more elevated level of ability. Using the universal themes prevalent in hip-hop as starting points to illuminate the literary skills embedded in the texts of the classic curriculum can be a win-win for all.

And when our students win, we all win.

Finally, using hip-hop in the class is fun. Look, the standards, if you dare to read them, are insufferably boring — but good teaching is not. Good teaching is lively, energetic, and filled with passion and inspiration. I can’t help but to think back to some of my own best teachers from years gone by and if they shared one trait in common, it was that their classrooms were a place where the students both learned and smiled. (Here’s a newsflash for contemporary policy makers in the field of education: the two are not mutually exclusive!) In my own class, I teach Shakespeare, I teach Orwell and I teach the lyrics of Public Enemy and KRS-ONE. As I see it, they are inter-related.

And why do I see it that way? Because that’s how my students see it. Remove the Drake or Kanye or Eminem and the Orwell, Twain and so on (in many instances) stands on an island to which far too many students are reluctant to journey. Put these artists back into the mix of the lesson plan and my students will jump in the boat, or even swim out to meet Orwell.

Or virtually any author I intelligently choose.

There are very few guarantees in the schools these days but I’m going to go out on a limb with this one: the teacher who brings hip-hop into their classroom is also going to bring in engagement, energy and excitement. It’s practically a sure thing if you teach in a school where hip-hop is king of all culture. Try it, you’ll see.

Then, when a fellow teacher passes you in the hall after seeing the way that your students have been buzzing about and asks, “Hey, what are you guys doing in there?” your answer will be quite simple.

“Yo, I’m using hip-hop in my class, ya diggggg?”

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