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Art Sanctuary offers ‘Hip Hop 101 Guide’

Hip hop and don’t stop

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It’s been over 25 years since the Sugarhill Gang first encouraged the American public to hip hop and don’t stop. From its roots in the creative expression of Black and Latino youth in the Bronx, New York, hip hop has since made an undeniable mark on America’s cultural landscape.

In fact, hip hop has started to pop up in schools, and the Philadelphia organization Art Sanctuary has now developed the Hip Hop 101 Curriculum Guide for teachers. The guide, which comprises 10 “learning activities,” a list of academic standards, and background information on hip hop music and culture, is a work in progress. But its developers believe it can help both educators and students appreciate and understand the cultural, artistic, and intellectual merits of hip hop.

Since the early 1990s, scholars and educators have realized hip hop’s potential as a tool for teaching. Catherine T. Powell’s 1991 publication, “Rap Music: An Education with a Beat from the Street” in The Journal of Negro Education, explores how hip hop informally educates youth.

More recently, the concern has been with implementing hip hop education in formal classroom settings. In 2002, a highly regarded English poetry unit, “The Poet in Society” by Ernest Morrell and Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, solidified the presence of hip hop in the classroom.

The 70-page Hip Hop 101 Curriculum Guide was developed by Laura Smith, a student in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and intern with Art Sanctuary.

The curriculum draws extensively from Art Sanctuary’s existing work that promotes an appreciation of hip hop and provides teacher workshops that focus on ways to incorporate hip hop into the classroom. The guide is unique in that it is designed with the teacher who is uninformed about hip hop in mind.

Lorene Cary, founder and director of Art Sanctuary, explains that the curriculum is “one that could be read and used by teachers who had no personal experience of hip hop forms.... Most teachers have [such experience] of older art forms: symphonies, poems, novels, plays.”

The guide opens with “Eras and Elements of Hip Hop,” an essay by James Peterson, professor of English at Penn State, Abington. This piece orients teachers to the four elements of hip hop: graffiti art, DJing, MCing, and breakdancing. This material also appears as the subject of “Lesson 2: What is Hip Hop?” in which teachers moderate a student debate.

The guide’s learning activities explore hip hop through reading, writing, critical thinking, and discussions. They also provide teachers with a list of suggested readings on hip hop as well as hip hop websites. Lessons vary in their requirements of group work, Internet research, and class discussions.

Each lesson uses hip hop as a lens through which students explore issues ranging from violence (in “Lesson 3: B-Boys and Break Beats”) to race and public space (in “Lesson 5: Reclaiming of Public Spaces”).

While such exploration of hip hop culture and contemporary social issues is important, educators may find it difficult to establish meaningful connections that are aligned with academic standards. Unfortunately, learning goals are not presented with each lesson.

The curriculum is conceptually designed to consider Pennsylvania’s “Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening,” but the standards and expected outcomes are not consistently made explicit. This significant omission, the major weakness of the curriculum, could leave many educators wondering where the learning is amidst the fun in hip hop education.

In “Lesson 8: Sampling and History,” for example, educators may have to stretch to meet clearly defined learning goals. By its end, which features a “Jeopardy”-like game that requires teachers to create questions and students to recall information from the previous day, the lesson loses its academic rigor and becomes rote.

The Hip Hop 101 Curriculum Guide is strongest when it makes academic connections explicit for teachers. For example, “Lesson 6: Hip Hop and Literature – The Mask,” allows students to consider a popular rap song (“The Mask,” by hip hop group the Fugees) alongside a classic poem (Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”).

This lesson makes a clear connection between popular culture and traditional learning, thus allowing for real exchange between student and teacher about the relationship between literary canons and popular culture.

A retired School District of Philadelphia educator, who has attended two teacher workshops on the curriculum, acknowledges that students “are interested and motivated” by hip hop in the classroom, but describes Hip Hop 101 as “not that strong.” She remains unconvinced that hip hop can be a high-quality educational tool.

This former teacher argues that the lessons lack academic rigor and objects to much of the lyrical content (i.e., profanity) found in the song lyrics. However, she says she did find the curriculum valuable in that it allows students to express themselves and become comfortable with interpreting, speaking, reading, and writing – all critical crosscutting competencies.

These competencies, especially writing and speaking, are the value added that makes Sheryl MacFadden, a teacher at Vaux High School, appreciate the Hip Hop 101 Curriculum Guide. She says that it is “a good curriculum ... especially when [teachers] are not reaching their students.” MacFadden plans on using the curriculum in her class and is optimistic that it will produce positive results.

Despite the time needed to connect each lesson to state standards, MacFadden sees the hip hop guide as “an excellent tool” and well worth the additional time spent listening to its recommended songs and aligning the curriculum with standards.

While the Hip Hop 101 Curriculum Guide is designed with the uninformed teacher in mind, it is probably those teachers who are willing to listen to and appreciate hip hop who will be the most likely to make hip hop-based education work.

For educators who “are down,” the Hip Hop 101 Curriculum Guide will be available through the Art Sanctuary’s Web site. Hard copies are also available from Art Sanctuary for $15.00.

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