When you hear the words "science class" your thoughts turn to lab coats, gas taps and waving magnesium ribbons at Bunsen burners. You don't tend to picture the Wu-Tang Clan.
Yet a founding member of the New York hip-hop crew, Gary Grice (also known as The Genius or GZA), has been visiting schools in his home city since 2012 to encourage students to write raps that explain scientific concepts. It sounds unlikely but it's completely genuine.
Grice's visits aren't occasional one-offs. Instead, they are part of an official programme called Science Genius. It was set up to test the following hypothesis: that the challenge of writing a rap that accurately teaches the principles of gravity, DNA or the human reproductive system, and then performing it in a live battle (where two people go head-to-head), will engage young people more effectively than current science teaching methodologies.
Science Genius is the most prominent offshoot of HipHopEd, a movement that, since November 2010, has blossomed from a series of informal Twitter chats in the US to an international community of teachers, scholars and youth development professionals. Together they are united by a desire to bring about positive change in education by using hip-hop culture in the classroom. The project's apparent success may hold lessons for all teachers, whether they have a love of hip hop or not.
Through lectures and forums but predominantly via the Twitter hashtag #HipHopEd, teachers report on ways they have used hip hop in teaching and brainstorm ideas about how to take things further. Some teachers use HipHopEd in the classroom, others at after-school clubs.
Go with the flow
As the movement is relatively new, studies into its effectiveness are so far thin on the ground. Anecdotally, however, teachers are reporting impressive levels of success. One factor in its favour is how quickly the movement has spread. That it could work in the US where hip-hop culture is so tightly woven into the social fabric is not surprising, but the approach has found a home in Japan and Europe, too. Indeed, HipHopEd UK has run five seminars, bringing together educators from across the country to share techniques.
So how does it all work? I decide to travel to New York to talk to those leading the way in HipHopEd, but first I make a trip to East London to see how the teachers are using the approach in the UK.
Darren Chetty, a teacher at Gayhurst Primary School in Hackney, runs an extracurricular HipHopEd project called Power to the Pupils. I visit a session and meet a group of 10 children, aged 9 to 11, from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. They begin with a "cypher", a collaborative rap where students share with enthusiasm, rhythm and eloquence what they have written for the song title "Who Am I?" - an example of the children using music to explore their own lives.
If this seems a world away from the gangster posturing, conspicuous branding and casual sexism of much mainstream hip hop, that's because it is. Decades before the stardom of Snoop Dogg, Eminem or Nicki Minaj, hip hop arose on the streets as a celebratory force that gave a dispossessed people a spirited voice and much-needed identity, while teaching the value of community and self-knowledge. HipHopEd was built on these principles.
"I came here just to rap," says Lola, 10, of the appeal of Power to the Pupils, "but we started having big discussions about sexism. We had a massive discussion about discrimination. And table manners. We bring it up ourselves, so we always end up learning something, and it's always things we want to learn about."
According to Chetty, this reflects a key tenet of HipHopEd: putting children's voices first. As the name Power to the Pupils would suggest, he emphasises the value of dialogue in these sessions.
"I won't say `Today we're talking about racism'," he explains. "But conversations around racism will come up because they're sharing their experiences. A lot of people think racism doesn't matter to kids. But if you bother to listen to them you'll find that it does. It's the same with class, gender, homophobia - all of these things come up."
The children show me their rhyme books. These are deliberately distinct from their school exercise books, allowing pupils to experience writing for its own sake rather than simply because the teacher is going to mark them on it.
"An important part of the teacher's role is to help the student make connections between their lived experience and the wider world," Chetty says. "Not just to insist that they take everything I teach as an act of faith on the promise that one day it'll be useful. That creates a level of distrust - `Why is the school saying one thing, when other areas of my life are saying something else?'
"It's about meaning-making. Exploring home life, street life and school life, and creating spaces of reflection to see where those things connect. That is one of the biggest things in HipHopEd for me."
Focusing on a cultural form that is relevant to young people can give teachers a better understanding of what makes their pupils tick and help them to interpret the signals those students give out in the classroom. This is another key tenet of HipHopEd: the teacher must remain a student, too.
"Kids feel a heightened sense of scholarship, especially when analysing contemporary lyrics," says Jeffrey Boakye, head of English at School 21 in Stratford and another UK proponent of HipHopEd. "You can see their energy lift because they're the experts. Schools miss out on that a lot. The assumption is that kids are empty and come to school to be filled up. But when you accept that a 12-year-old is whole and capable, you can have a conversation and learn from them. We say let all that into the classroom."
Boakye recently used Eminem's Toy Soldiers, a rap track with a regimented rhythm in a military style, as a way in to Wilfred Owen's war poetry. The approach challenged him to teach a standard text in a way that felt not only exciting but true to Boakye and to his students.
During the lesson, everyone was filmed reciting Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est over the Eminem instrumental. "They all assumed the lyrics were Eminem's," he says. "Wilfred Owen is timeless, that's why we study him, but a 13-year-old won't necessarily agree. This is a good way to strip away the baggage so they can see it for what it is, on their own terms. Not on terms dictated from above."
The likes of Chetty and Boakye demonstrate how hip hop can be used as a starting point for discussion about literature or social issues. Yet as I discover in New York, the Science Genius project shows that it can also be applied to technical subjects such as maths and engineering. And, it seems, the positive effects are not limited to academic progress.
"It has improved attendance rates," says Christopher Emdin, co-founder of Science Genius and associate professor of science education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "Kids are also more willing to continue to advanced levels in the sciences, the stuff that's usually reserved for the best and brightest. We're getting this to students in the projects, those who are usually the least engaged. Meanwhile the battle element adds a rigour - people who may usually be sitting there passively have to bring their academic A game."
Of course, not everyone is a hip-hop fan, and if a teacher suddenly decided to adopt this approach in a way that wasn't genuine, they would be inviting ridicule. Home economics teachers needn't be doing headspins to hold attention. Yet the proponents of HipHopEd insist its principles can apply to anyone, no matter what their background. Emdin and his cohort have coined a term for this approach: reality pedagogy.
Keep it real
"It's essentially about opening yourself up to engage the youth through how they see life, and finding the intelligence in how they're already interacting among themselves," says Timothy Jones, director of education at charity Martha's Table in Washington, who joined the leadership team of HipHopEd in 2011. "Then it's about transferring those skills into the classroom."
If HipHopEd demonstrates anything, it is the power of using your own interests in lessons. Children who shine in sports teams, for example, often have genuine and positive relationships with their sports teacher - this is because they share common ground. Your particular passion may not be hip hop, but there are other ways of opening yourself up to find that connection with students.
"When I started teaching I thought one of the things I needed to do to impress the institution was to act like a teacher," says Chetty, who grew up with hip hop. "And that often meant mimicking the teachers who had taught me. I was almost keeping from the pupils the fact that I had an interest in the same thing that they did. There was this notion of a professional identity which meant that I had to deny the fact that to some extent we had a shared cultural knowledge."
Yet there will be some who say that transferring rap music to the classroom is a bad idea. Especially as, despite the positive messages of some rap, the value of much of the content reaching children now is controversial. HipHopEd says, however, that as this is exactly what the children will be exposed to anyway, it can be used to frame discussions that develop their powers of judgement.
"It's laughable to think that an educator would be responsible for introducing the kids to this music," Jones says. "Technology these days means they can get anything 247. Yet to discuss it in the right kind of space, with an adult they feel comfortable with, will develop the tools for critical thinking and we want the young people to be engaging with life through that lens."
Indeed, those involved in Power to the Pupils are proud to share their distaste for rappers who glorify swearing, drinking and "treating women as objects".
"Older rappers have to do that stuff all the time because they won't get the money for it otherwise," 11-year-old Jess says. "Our raps are different to the radio, because we're kids. We express our feelings more. And we're more playful."
While the Power to the Pupils crew are busy crafting follow-ups to songs including "As Cool as Similes" and "Things That Teachers Say", the purveyors of HipHopEd will be hard at work, too. They are organising from the ground up, following their own interests and sharing ideas and knowledge across the internet - all while stepping back and letting the pupils speak.
"No one has all the answers," Emdin says. "You have to be listening to learn from your students. But the teacher needs to bring their A game, too."
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