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Hip Hop, Sociology, and At-Risk Youth

Hip Hop is awesome! When  used in my social studies classroom, a simple hip hop beat can move the most apathetic, uninterested, and alienated of students to pay attention and proclaim, "this is pretty sick!" It has been a tool that I've used  more consistently as I work with youth who are emerged in hip hop culture. At the best of times, I have been able to use the music of Nas, Krs-One, and Eminem to illustrate concepts of poverty, social alienation, and questioning authority. So it only made sense to develop an entire course at our school entitled "Hip Hop and Social Justice" in order to use the elements of hip hop to transform the classroom and learning experience of the students.

At my school, I work with at-risk youth who enter our classrooms with severe gaps in their education. Most have a reading and writing level at a third to fifth grade level as they enter grade ten. Our students are deemed "at-risk", which can basically be interpreted as youth who are "at-risk" to homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, and many other social ills. With this in mind, we believed that we could use hip hop to enable students with low literacy skills  to analyze complex social issues, and in the process, develop their reading in writing skills to enable them to have success when they take other academic courses. We set up 'freestyle' and 'Mic Check' writing assignments and tried to incorporate as many elements of hip hop culture in the classroom to make it a relevant experience for the students.

As the course began, my co-teacher and myself were extremely excited with this opportunity. We talked and planned for a few weeks to develop lessons, resources, and ideas to use in the course. We felt we were on the cutting edge of teaching with all the excitement we built up for ourselves. The excitement lasted until the second class of the course. We completely underestimated what we like to call the "classroom baggage" that the students brought into our course. This "classroom baggage" consists of students experience of traditional education in which they more than likely have had extremely negative experiences. Many of the students at our school were unable to succeed within the public education system and come to us as their last chance to get an education.  The students who enrolled in our course could be considered the most challenging in the school. When they are all put in the same classroom, it can be challenging for even the most experienced teacher. At the onset of the course, the students immediately began resisting the course and the perceived authority of myself and co-teacher. Even though we attempted to implement hip hop and democratic principles in the classroom, the students still refused to get involved any more than they had to.

The only thing the students knew about the course before attending was that it was about hip hop. With this knowledge, many of them had the idea that the course should simply be about watching Youtube hip hop videos. In an attempt to allow the youth to be a part of the decision making process of the course we allowed students to listen to or view videos of their favourite hip hop artists, with the idea that we could discuss the content of the lyrics afterwards. This strategy did not work as students refused to talk about any of the content or complete any of the work we had prepared for them.

We were left stumped and frustrated. We thought we developed a course based on the culture that students were living in. We were enthusiastic in the class, incorporated the elements of hip hop, allowed students to choose the music they wanted to use in class, and attempted to give students an equal footing with us to decide how we could build the course together. It took two weeks until my co-teacher and I realized that we had been like every other teacher these students have had in their educational career. Unintentionally we had lowered the expectations of these students because of their perceived academic abilities. We preached to the students that we can work on assignments together and will give accommodations and alternatives to make learning more meaningful to them. As nice as this sounds, the students began disengaging with the class as they felt the work they were completing was pointless and had no meaning if it wasn't up to the same standard as their peers in other classes. We were somehow ruining hip hop for these students......what have we done?

After this realization, we agreed that instead of trying to make the course seem easy and that anybody can succeed in it, we should increase expectations and introduce complex sociological concepts into the course. We based the class off of a grade 11 sociology course as the curriculum was quite broad in order to incorporate hip hop into it. We wanted to use hip hop as a lens to understand social justice issues, but this approach was not working. So we flipped the idea, we decided to use sociology as a lens to understand hip hop. We began this process with a basic reading about the "sociological imagination". I was unsure how students would respond to sitting down for an entire class while reading and discussing sociological concepts and ideas. If they rejected hip hop as an educational tool, why would they accept sociology?

As we passed out the reading and explained what we were doing that day, we did receive the usual resistance. However, this time, we explained that the resistance students were showing us in class was a part of what we would be studying that day. We told the students that resistance and questioning authority was a natural part of human behaviour and it would be accepted and encouraged as long as you can back it up with intellectual reasoning. When we began to read about the sociological imagination, each student took turns reading. At one point, students just naturally took turns without a reminder from myself or the co-teacher. Students began asking questions and even began looking at hip hop and their own lives through a sociological point of view. It was remarkable how quickly these students could pick up these complex ideas and use them to understand issues in their own lives in just a few classes.

The real lesson for myself with these students is that teachers need a constant reminder to have high expectations for all students. Students are surprising and have extreme levels of intelligence, even if they've been told their entire lives that they don't. Students need to feel that what they're learning is important and worth their time. In the case of these students, they want to learn, but only if it's up to their high standards. We are now conducting seminars, participating in lectures, and beginning our first research essay next week. It's a slower process than most classrooms, but with each class, I can see the "classroom baggage" that these students initially had start to disappear as they become more confident, expressive, and critical with their educational experience.

As always, hip hop is still awesome, it's even more awesome watching my students, who have been discarded by the public education system, achieve high levels of critical thinking and start to rebuild confidence in their academic abilities. Achieving this confidence and success for these students is a long term process and will not end with this course. Hopefully, for these students, the combination of sociology, hip hop, and two crazy teachers, will allow them to see how a critical education can help their lives in and out of the classroom.

* For more ideas on Hip Hop education check out #HipHopEd on twitter. Our main inspiration came from @chrisemdin on twitter and his great Ted Talk here: