Hip Hop in the Classroom

Posted Jun 9 2006

Thoughts and tips on using hip hop to teach teens. (Revised 6.5.06)

Although I have been called a “hip-hop” teacher, that’s a bit of misnomer. For one, I don’t exactly “teach hip hop.” I use it as a means or entry point to teach academic, interpersonal, job, and critical thinking skills. Secondly, although hip hop plays a huge role in the classroom, it’s only one tool that I utilize in an effort to engage students. I use everything from sports, to origami, to food to grab their attention. Having said that, hip hop tends to get the most attention and most consistent response. Whether we as educators like hip hop or not is irrelevant. All one needs to do to see hip hop’s pervasive influence is to turn on the television or radio, glance at Wall Street or the fashion runway, or check the Billboard charts. Even students who don’t like hip hop are impacted by it in countless ways including fashion and slang.

Nonetheless, hip hop is often called a fad, even after 30 years of development, and blamed for everything from teen pregnancy to gang violence.  But as with any art form, hip hop is not one dimensional.  However, the purpose of this writing is not to educate anyone about hip hop’s history or of the social context that it was created. The purpose is to discuss how and why I use it in the classroom. It’s important to students and can be as negative or positive as educators allow it to be.

Hip hop aside, the most important thing for any student is that the classroom needs to be a safe place. In an extreme sense, this refers to students’ physical safety. As surreal as it may sound to some, too many students have good reason to be preoccupied with the threat of violence. In a more general sense, students need to know that the classroom is a safe place for them to express themselves. While this doesn’t mean an “anything goes” atmosphere, students are not going to open up if their ideas or perspectives are not respected by teachers or peers. While teachers are often seen with wary eyes, teachers who respect students’ interests and ways of expression get a much more positive response from students. One does not necessarily have to be a fan of hip hop. It just works wonders to respect that many students are.

The next key is to make the information relevant. Why would anyone want to waste his or her time learning useless information? Hip hop can be play a critical role as a bridge between academics and students’ lives. Dissecting music videos can lead to discussions on gender roles. Discussing the music business and contracts can lead to math lessons. Discussing what makes a hip-hop artist a good MC parallels discussions about master authors and ways that the students themselves can improve their own writing. A discussion about the origin of rapper Tupac’s name can open up a lesson on the Incan empire. In some cases I’m just trying to get students interested in attending school on a regular basis, much less completing their work. However, once students do get invested in their work, it’s been my experience that they can make great progress with continued staff support. If students are not invested in their work, teachers can expect low work completion, low participation, and behavioral problems.


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