Madelyn Taylor and Christopher Crowe, English
Since the birth of hip-hop culture as youth culture in the 1970s, exploration of hip-hop influenced pedagogies in formal schooling has grown increasingly popular (Hill, 2009). By centering classrooms on elements of hip-hop arts such as spoken word, graffiti culture, and hip-hop music, educational research has seen notable improvements in student attendance and critical engagement with literature and popular media (Petchauer, 2009). Most studies of hip-hop pedagogies have examined the qualitative benefits of teaching critical hip-hop literacies in urban public schools, but since the popularization of performance poetry on social media platforms, there is a growing use of slam poetry and hip-hop literature in suburban classrooms as well. In 2010 a student teacher began a slam poetry unit in his 7th grade English class at Payson Junior High, which became a district wide slam poetry competition. My research worked to identify how slam poetry units taught in these junior high English classrooms in the Nebo School District of northern Utah function successfully or unsuccessfully as extensions of hip-hop pedagogy in schools where the dominant student culture is not hip-hop. I also looked at how individual teachers approached spoken word poetry as both a literary and culturally significant art form.
One of the primary concerns in my project has been the possible negative effects of using hip-hop pedagogies outside of their cultural context, that hip-hop and spoken word culture in suburban classrooms may be misrepresented, and so my Orca project has repeatedly focused on identifying how Nebo teachers maintain social and cultural awareness inherent in hip-hop without alienating students unfamiliar with hip-hop culture; this included identifying the cultural influences and origins of the program itself.1
My project collected information on suburban hip-hop pedagogies through observing multiple junior high classrooms during their poetry units, class assemblies, and end of unit competitions. I recoreded interviews with teachers who actively teach slam poetry units in Nebo District or who founded the original program. I analyzed the teaching methods I observed for similarities to hip-hop pedagogies in their use of hip-hop artifacts in their lesson plans, in providing spaces for improvisational, experimental, and collaborative poetry, and in encouraging student engagement with out-of-class culture. I used the content and style of poetry produced by students at the end of the unit as a benchmark for comparison2 to poetry produced by students in hip-hop classrooms where hip-hop is a more prominent student culture, and with the results, created a presentation on my findings for the 2019 National Conference for Teachers of English.
While many of the teachers I observed used examples from hip-hop artists in introducing their slam units, the structure of both the poetry slams and classroom workshops reflected the music and poetry festivals more common to the northern Utah area. Poems produced by students themselves, most often echoed experiences, challenges, and vernacular unique to the dominant culture of Nebo district, including poems on military service, teen depression, internet humor, and “Learning You How Not to Ride a Cow.” These poems most commonly used the chronological story-telling patterns typical of American western literature. Individual teachers encouraged different aspects of slam and hip-hop culture, such as originality, collaboration, and validation of personal identity, and a small number of students from every classroom engaged in self-motivated improvisational and self-referential writing, though the inherent benefits that memorizing, and performing a poem had on student ability to analyze poetry were prioritized over the pedagogical promise of hip-hop as improvisational, dialogic, and collaborative. A few of the teachers interviewed pulled lesson plans from the Poetry Out Loud national competition or used “Cowboy Poetry,” and internet memes in their lessons. In this way, teachers engaged with critical goal of hip-hop pedagogy in bridging out-of-school literacy practices into schoolsponsored work, encouraging students to engage personally and consciously with literature, while avoiding using hip-hop as a gimmick in their classrooms.
At their heart, the modified hip-hop poetry units of Nebo district seek to center classrooms on student voices and experiences, legitimizing student culture by academically addressing the formal qualities of the literature it produces and placing students at the forefront of their own educations. Regardless of teaching style or poetic preference in the classroom, each teacher we observed emphasized the value and benefits of performance poetry in empowering student voices.
With Orca’s support, and with the goal of empowering student voices in mind, in addition to classroom observations and interviews, I worked with four schools in the Nebo district to schedule local slam poets to perform in school assemblies or classroom workshops. These presentations allowed students to not only see poetry performed live, but to meet and to talk personally with local poets about community poetry movements and further opportunities to share their own work. The observations and interviews conducted in Nebo district were also used to prepare a presentation of my research for the 2019 National Council of Teachers of English undergraduate roundtable, with an emphasis on the potential that respectfully modified hip-hop pedagogies in suburban schools has on activating critical literacy practices and community involvement.
1 Many of the teachers interviewed cited Ted Talks or music competitions as their first introduction to spoken word, which, with modifications for classroom management, explains the unique structure of classroom competitions, especially regarding expectations of constrained audience engagement and closed judging.
2 Student examples used for comparison were taken from Elaine B. Richardson’s Hiphop Literacies, (Routledge, 2007).
Low, Bronwen E. Slam School: Learning through Conflict in the Hip-hop and Spoken Word Classroom. N.p.: Stanford UP, 2011. Print.
Petchauer, Emery. “Framing and Reviewing Hip-Hop Educational Research.” Sage Journals. Review of Educational Research, 10 Jan. 2017. Web. 2009. Print.