Hip Hop High

Posted Dec 15 2007

The musical language of the street has new fans: teachers, who are using it as a classroom tool. A feature article in the August 2005 edition of the George Lucas Foundation's magazine Edutopia. On a side note, the intro says that we're new fans of hip hop. The thing is, hip hop is old enough that many of us teachers were fans before we were even able to be teachers! All images taken by Noah Webb.

Like many 16-year-olds, Amir Ali spends a lot of time after school talking with friends about sports, girls, and music -- specifically, hip-hop music. But last year, during his sophomore year at Lynwood High School, in Lynwood, California, Ali noticed a drastic shift in these spirited afternoon after-school conversations.

"Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk about English class," Ali remembers."A friend even said she was looking forward to English class the next day. It was never a class you looked forward to."

The difference? Remarkably, Ali's friends' sudden conversational shift is the result of one man: Alan Sitomer, an English teacher at Lynwood who had an epiphany one night at home. The intellectual awakening struck, as they often do, when Sitomer was sleep deprived, up at 2 A.M. trying to finish a lesson plan on English poet Dylan Thomas. Sitomer was restless, realizing he had to wake up at 5 A.M. to get to class. "I was focusing on Thomas's line 'Do not go gentle into that good night,'" he says.

Funkamentals Then it hit. Sitomer began thinking about Tupac Shakur, a deceased rapper his students idolized and often played. He went online and dove into Shakur's lyrics, and, although the rapper artist had lived a violent life and died tragically in a hail of bullets on a Las Vegas street, Sitomer saw that his writings aren't all about misogyny, homophobia, or gang violence. Instead, Shakur also wrote about treating others with respect and standing up to aggression. Deep within the hard-edged raps were positive messages about elevating your consciousness and rising against adversity.

"So, I built a bridge from Tupac to Thomas," Sitomer says. Staying up most of the rest of the night, he compared the poet and the rapper, finding relationships in the meaning of their words and the rhythm of their rhymes of the English poet and the late rapper. He pulled out similar alliterations, metaphors, and thematic elements. Exhausted, Sitomer finally went to bed.

The next day, Sitomer was running a little slow, but his students weren't. The kids made the connection immediately." My class was electric," he says. "The following day, the first thing they wanted was more poetry and hip-hop," says Sitomer, who was recognized with California's State Literacy Teacher of the Year award in 2003 for the remarkable turnaround he stewarded in the inner-city school.

"I pray that he keeps on doing what he's doing," says Ali. "He made an impact on my life."


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