Events, News & Updates

Hip Hop Professor joins with Hip Hop Star

I’ve always been a bit wary of bringing the street into the classroom; not because I thought it was a bad idea to use outside experiences to raise student interest but rather because it is too often simplisticly implemented.

Back in 1969 I was a reading teacher at an experimental school in Philadelphia and I hit upon the idea of a theme based program around boxing. All the kids seemed excited about the idea so I gathered books and articles at different reading levels about boxers and boxing, and offered them to the kids in lieu of the usual reading curriculum.

It didn’t make much difference. Their interest in boxing was about the activity and not about the subject per se. Even the short biographies of Ali and Frazier didn’t do it. (I teamed up with Phys Ed teacher and eventually set up a boxing ring, had a few well monitored matches with video camera men and ring side announcers to add some action.)

There were other experiences where I observed teachers having kids sing songs they wrote with the lyrics of then popular songs adapted to a school subject, or a book they had read. It seemed cute and was motivating but I questioned the learning being accomplished.

It was with this jaundice view that I came across a recent article in the New York Times describing the collaboration between GZA of the Wu Tang Clan and Christopher Emdin a professor of Science Education at Columbia University to use hip hop as a mechanism for creating interest in, and learning science.

(I had blogged about Emdin and posted a video of him on Leadership Help earlier this year.)

Next month, the two men, along with the popular hip-hop lyrics Web site Rap Genius, will announce a pilot project to use hip-hop to teach science in 10 New York City public schools. The pilot is small, but its architects’ goals are not modest. Dr. Emdin, who has written a book called “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation,” hopes to change the way city teachers relate to minority students, drawing not just on hip-hop’s rhymes, but also on its social practices and values.

What attracted me to this program other than the catchiness of it, was the thinking behind the program. Dr. Emdin refers to a hip-hop cypher in which a group stands in a circle and a member begins a rap which is picked up by another member as the first one ends. He offers this as a teaching alternative to what we normally see in a classroom.

“A hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up,” Dr. Emdin said, his checked bow tie bobbing under his chin. “There’s equal turns at talking. When somebody has a great line, the whole audience makes a ‘whoo,’ which is positive reinforcement.”

The is also a publication of student work, in this case on the hip hop website Rap Genius ,which is also a highly regarded mechanism for student learning, though usually the publication is on the walls or in a school magazine or journal.

There was a caveat from a former supervisor, Rodney Fisher, of Dr. Emdin when he was using this approach in his own classroom:

He had improved his students’ assessments, pass rates and attendance levels, Mr. Fisher said, though he added that this might simply be because Dr. Emdin was a good, passionate teacher.

The good news is that in this very important and often neglected area he was successful.

“Science and math are the hardest to get students interested in,” Mr. Fisher, 44, said. “His students became invested in physics, able to identify terminology or vocabulary, and also able to use that to apply scientific formulas.

The stakes are high, and  with the thought Dr. Emdin has put into his planning and the support of a successful rapper like Gza, the chances of success seem high as well.