Hip Hop Algebra

Hip-Hop Helps Teach Everything from English to Algebra

Amir Ali, who is 16 years old, is a typical teenager in that he likes to hang out with his buddies after school and speak about various topics, including music, notably hip-hop music, sports, and ladies. In contrast, the previous year, when Ali was a sophomore at Lynwood High School in Lynwood, California, he noticed a significant difference in the animated talks that occurred in the afternoons and after school.

Ali recalls that all of a sudden, everyone was interested in talking about their English classes. “Even one of my close friends mentioned how much she was looking forward to her English class the following day. It was never one of those classes that you looked forward to attending.”

What’s the big deal? Alan Sitomer, an English teacher at Lynwood High School, had an aha! moment while he was at home one evening, and as a result, Ali’s classmates have made a remarkable and unexpected shift in the topics of their conversations.

Sitomer was up until two in the morning working on a lesson plan about the English poet Dylan Thomas when he had one of those moments that are so typical of intellectual breakthroughs: he was sleep deprived. Sitomer couldn’t get comfortable since he knew he had to get up for school at five in the morning. “I was concentrating on Thomas’s statement ‘Do not go lightly into that good night,'” he adds. “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Then it struck him: Sitomer started thinking about Tupac Shakur, a late rapper whose music his students frequently played and who was revered by those kids before his death. Sitomer went online and dove into Shakur’s lyrics. Despite the fact that the rapper artist had lived a violent life and died tragically in a hail of bullets on a Las Vegas street, Sitomer saw that Shakur’s writings aren’t all about misogyny, homophobia, or gang violence. Shakur’s writings are about a variety of topics, including the following:

Instead, Shakur talked about the importance of respecting one another and standing up for oneself when confronted with aggression. Positive messages about cultivating a higher state of consciousness and persevering in the face of adversity were buried deep inside the rough-edged raps.

“Consequently, I constructed a bridge connecting Tupac and Thomas,” adds Sitomer. While he was awake for the better part of the rest of the night, he compared the English poet to the late rapper, looking for connections between the meaning of their words and the rhythm of their rhymes. He remained awake for the majority of the night. He utilised analogous alliterations, analogies, and conceptual components in his speech. Sitomer, who was completely spent, decided to go to bed.

The following day, Sitomer was operating at a slightly slower pace than usual, but his students were not: the youngsters recognised the connection right away.

He describes the atmosphere in his class as “energetic.” “The following day, the first thing they wanted was more poetry and hip-hop,” says Sitomer, who was recognised with California Literacy’s Teacher of the Year award in 2003 for the remarkable turnaround he oversaw in the inner-city school. Sitomer is credited with being the driving force behind the school’s transformation from a low-performing institution to a model of academic excellence.

Ali utters these words: “I pray that he continues doing what he is doing.” “His influence was significant in my life.”

Is Your Game Tight?

It’s a message that’s slowly making its way to the ears of educators all around the country. Teachers everywhere—from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and everywhere in between—have come to the realisation that the widespread popularity of hip-hop is a potent tool that can be used to engage students and teach anything from English to algebra to the periodic table of the elements in chemistry class. This is true in classrooms from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and everywhere in between.

Noah Webb is responsible for the image.
Play on words: students of the English language enjoy classical poetry while also drawing inspiration from the language of the streets.
Toni Blackman, who has held the position of hip-hop cultural envoy for the United States Department of State since 2001 (yeah, that’s a real title), describes hip-hop as “a really effective instructional instrument; it’s very stimulating.” “Changing the way we teach is necessary. If you want to be successful as a teacher in today’s world, where you have to fight for pupils’ attention with technology and the media, you need to step up your game.”

During the early 1970s in New York City, a DJ by the name of Kool Herc is widely regarded as the person who is responsible for the creation of hip-hop. Kool Herc is said to have recited and chanted improvised rhymes over reggae music. The music, which swiftly became more polished, featured a rapper delivering syncopated spoken words over a loud beat. It was one of the first musical forms to strip away live instruments and focus lyrics and rhythms, and it quickly became one of the most popular music genres in the world.

Hip-hop, which is known for its use of slang and stories that are based on real-life experiences, rose to prominence as a significant influence on New York City’s younger generation almost immediately. Rap and hip-hop were swiftly brought to the attention of people all throughout the country in the 1980s because to the pioneering music of groups like the Sugarhill Gang and Run-DMC. Hip-hop is currently one of the genres of music that is selling the most copies, thanks to the efforts of musicians like Eminem, 50 Cent, Ludacris, and Nelly, amongst others. It is the equivalent of what jazz was to the global cultural heritage of the United States 80 years ago.

Dawn-Elissa Fischer has witnessed the transformative potential of hip-hop in the educational setting. Fischer is currently employed as a professor at Laney College, which is located in Oakland, California. Prior to this, she worked at Harvard University as an education-outreach coordinator at the Hiphop Archive located at that institution. (Since then, the archive can be found at Stanford University, where she continues to provide consulting services.)

The Washington Middle School in Springfield, Illinois, was the location of one of Fischer’s first positions in the education industry. When Fischer first started at the school, more than seventy percent of the pupils enrolled in her English course were performing below the required level. She identifies herself as a member of the “hip-hop generation” in her statement. Because I found that listening to hip-hop helped me in my own process of critical thinking, I wanted to include it into my teaching.

The students learned about various grammatical concepts while listening to radio-friendly edits of popular songs and participating in discussions with local hip-hop musicians that Fischer invited into the classroom. The results were astounding: only two of the total of 150 students failed the programme when it was all said and done. The about-face “was astonishing even to me,” she says of the reversal of events.

Keith Morikawa, an aspiring filmmaker who had recently finished his first documentary called “Reading Between the Rhymes,” which looks at educators utilising hip-hop to educate, is not one of the people who are startled by this news. Morikawa went on a cross-country journey for the purpose of his film, during which he filmed educators, participated in conferences, and met with hip-hop artists.

Morikawa recalls going to observe a class for first-year students in a high school. “The teacher told me that the students could be rowdy around cameras,” he recalls. “We had three cameras set up, and not one pupil flinched. They were all fixated on what he was talking about, which was Tupac and racism. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that was more effective than that in terms of catching the students’ attention and accomplishing what the instructor wants them to do.”

Fight for the Right

It’s possible that 2017 may be the year when the idea of incorporating hip-hop into the curriculum finally achieves a critical mass. Proponents of it still have a long way to go before they can convince school administrators that the music they hear ridiculed by politicians and parents can be used to educate children, despite the fact that many of its practitioners are adamant that this is the case.

Hip-hop has been co-opted by popular culture, which has changed it from a rebellious and largely positive form of youth expression in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the overly commercialised, multibillion-dollar juggernaut it is today. Part of the blame for this opposition lies with popular culture, which has co-opted hip-hop and transformed it. Our fickle society is going through a moment in which the hip-hop that is currently popular is frequently the most violent, sexist, and misogynistic, and it caters to the most base feelings that people can feel. The instructors who are attempting to contact parents and administrators in order to receive authorization to incorporate hip-hop in the classroom are not helped by this mindset of stooping to the lowest possible level.

Sitomer asserts that both the academic community and the general public have a number of misconceptions about hip-hop. “They are quick to disregard it, and in their eyes, rappers have no place in the realm of talented artists. I had to fight both the students and the administration to get them to appreciate traditional poetry, and I had to fight the students to appreciate modern poetry. On either side, there was a steep incline.”

Morikawa agrees.

“With all the visuals you see out there, it’s hard for administrators to justify utilising hip-hop in the classroom,” he adds. “It’s difficult for administrators to justify using hip-hop in the classroom.” “There will always be some individuals who have a negative opinion towards it. However, you are obligated to guide the pupils in developing an analytical perspective on what they are witnessing regardless.”

However, even the most divisive artists of our day can provide instructional opportunities, provided that they are edited appropriately. Daniel Zarazua, a teacher in Oakland, California, utilises hip-hop in his lessons in a way that is both novel and effective. He takes those aspects of rap music that are most frequently criticised, such as its excessive commercialism, sexism, and violence, and removes away the bravado around them in order to demonstrate that the emperor of rap music is naked.

“I have the students write down ten goals they want to accomplish in their lives,” he explains. “I then have them prioritise those goals in order of importance.” “After that, we check through hip-hop periodicals and music videos to determine whether or not their preferred hip-hop musicians are working toward the same things they are. If not, what is the reason? If going to school and taking care of your family is one of your priorities, but this musician is encouraging you to spend $3,000 on a watch and drink alcohol, those two things don’t go together.”

Like Zarazua, Jeff Feinman, who directs the DJ Project in San Francisco, an after-school programme for students who are having difficulty academically, uses hip-hop to connect with the students in the programme. He also requires the students to critically examine the reality that lies behind the braggadocio displayed by artists. According to what he has said, “We investigate what it means to be a pimp.” “We investigate to see who is harmed by that.”

The vast majority of educators who use hip-hop in the classroom are careful to remove any references to sexism or violence from the music they play. Fischer laughs as he recalls the time he rephrased the phrase “received a hall pass” to mean “tattooed on your ass.” After the lyrics have been “bleeped” and the music have been cleaned up, the children will be able to use hip-hop as a gateway into learning everything from algebra to grammar.

Noah Webb is responsible for the image.
Poetic Soldiers: Ranson Kennedy (left) and Wade Colwell, cofounders of Funkamentalz, integrated the periodic table of the elements into the lyrics of a rap song.
On their CD Education by Any Means Necessary, a musical group in Tucson known as the Funkamentalz employs homemade hip-hop songs to teach the periodic table of the elements. One of the songs includes the lyrics, “Your calcium level’s cadmium cool like carbon-copy californium chicks in a pool.”

Hip-hop fans perceive the music as a way for instructors to infuse their pupils with a desire to study, which is in line with the ongoing effort that educators make to kindle an interest in learning in their students. According to Feinman, “There are a variety of reasons why children do not interact with one another at school.” “How can we get young people enthused about learning by utilising culture in a way that speaks to them? Hip-hop is utilised here. It turned out to be the magnet.”

“I teach in a high school located in the heart of the city,” says Sitomer. “Gangs, drug trafficking, and gun violence are all pervasive problems in my neighbourhood. The children who are able to read and write are the ones who end up being responsible adults. The vast majority of the children do not.”

While Sitomer is on the phone in his classroom between periods of instruction, he interrupts himself for a few seconds to answer a student’s inquiry. When he got back to the phone, he laughed briefly at a notion, and then he shared it with us: “You don’t have to be a fan of Biggie Smalls in order to use him to get in touch with Langston Hughes.”