Hip Hop Arts in Education (Janet's blog)

Grantmakers in the Arts sponsored a session entitled “Hip Hop Arts in Education” at the Council on Foundations conference in Denver, April 25. This was a repeat of a session presented at our own conference in Brooklyn that packed the session room and was the talk of the conference. (Thank you Claudine Brown and the Social Justice committee.) Two of the spoken word artists, Carvens and Ceez were catapulted from the session to the plenary stage at the spur of the moment. It was the best on-site conference decision I made (without a doubt.) Their performance of “Switch” is on the GIA website. There wasn’t a dry eye at GIA last October and Sunday’s COF session attendees had the very same response. Amazing when the transformational power of the arts is so evident.

The session was led by Dr. David Kirkland, NYU Steinhardt Center English professor along with Martha Diaz, founder of Hip Hop Association and MC K-Swift, author, teacher and artist. It should really have been entitled “ how to keep kids in school and increase the graduation rate.” The session at COF was not packed since it was in the same time slot as new directions for No Child Left Behind (ESEA). Our Hip Hop panelists’ innovative approach to engaging students in learning is exactly what should be at the center of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Too bad we weren’t an addition to that session.

The great “AHA” moment for me (and it’s not that I haven’t been around enough education talk lately) was a very simple question: why aren’t we teaching subject matter as important as math, English, science, history and the arts within the cultural perspective of the places where children live? Our cookie-cutter curriculum is so out dated and so boring, it is absolutely no surprise to me that graduation rates are at levels of 40-50% in our inner city schools. Just as the arts, in general, can engage students to give them the self-confidence and interest to stay in school, this kind of practical application of street culture into the regiment of education seems like a no brainer.

Hip Hop is only one example. It won’t work in every school in America but it is does work for many youth who are disengaged, particularly young people who are already writing poetry, listening to music and dancing to its rhythms on the street corners as their desks at school sit empty. Dr. Kirkland supposes: “Do we have to teach alliteration using Shakespeare when a Tupac poem could teach the same thing?” This is when English teachers and most educated folks get crazy. Do you mean substitute Shakespeare with rap? Are you nuts? OK, no…let’s keep teaching “Romeo and Juliet” to every high school freshman because it’s working so very well for us. Sarcasm aside (and that’s not easy for me), we can do both. It’s about engagement. It’s about meeting kids where they are and then moving them to another level. It’s about teaching methods designed to reflect the culture of the community.

Dr. Kirkland made a terrific point when he said, “youth have not disengaged from schools, schools have disengaged with youth.” I have always believed that really exceptional teachers get the concept of connecting and implement it without professional development and any curriculum guide. Others need help. All of them need support from their administrators. Increasing the graduation rates for our cities is critical for the future security and economic well being of this country. It’s not an issue for a single class or race. It is a national crisis.

This June, GIA and Grantmakers for Education will address the issue of barriers to arts learning in K-12 urban public schools at a special forum in Baltimore. Hip Hop will probably not come up in our academic discussion. But talking about engaging students will. Making schools reflect more of the priorities those students have when they leave school for their neighborhoods makes education more engaging and relevant. Chaucer and Dante wrote in the vernacular because they knew their work would be more accessible. Hip Hop, video games, new technologies and the like can do the same. AND we can still teach Shakespeare.