Teachers Use Hip Hop to Engage Students

A growing number of teachers are integrating hip hop music into their lessons to engage students.

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Before the Great Depression, robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan had the same troubles as the late rapper Biggie Smalls, Kanene Holder tells her students.

"More money can cause more problems," says Holder, a staff member at Urban Arts Partnership, a nonprofit group that promotes arts-integrated education. She's been using hip hop music to explain tough concepts to her classes for the past six years. "We talk about how before the Great Depression, the robber barons didn't see problems coming."

Holder is one of a growing number of teachers to implement hip hop into their classrooms over the past few years. A report released last month by the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development found that more than 300 middle schools, high schools, and after-school programs have been spicing up typical lessons with hip hop, a genre of music that has long been kept out of classrooms.

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One of the best known schools using this approach is the High School for Recording Arts (commonly known as Hip Hop High) in St. Paul, Minn., which was founded in 1996. But nearly 70 percent of educational hip hop programs have been started in the past five years, according to the NYU report.

At Hip Hop High, students learn about music production, entrepreneurship, and lyricism, but hip hop has a place in other parts of education, explains Martha Diaz, coauthor of the NYU report. Hip hop education can help engage frustrated African-American and minority students, she says. Just 57 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate from high school, according to a June report by Education Week.

Educators are "teaching the history of hip hop, the social justice value of hip hop," Diaz says. "They know kids are into this type of music, and teachers can use it as a bridge to talk about other subjects."

In Holder's class, she might compare the 1990s East Coast vs. West Coast hip hop turf wars between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls to the American Revolution. "It's just like the Loyalists vs. the Patriots," she says. "I would have the students do a rap battle—they'd formulate a rap in a group, formulate some main ideas, [and] then perform it in front of the class. It's kind of like a town hall meeting, hip hop style."

[Read why arts education is getting White House attention.]

Diaz says the initial report was meant to be a survey of the number and types of hip hop education programs, but the NYU research group is planning a subsequent study to determine hip hop education's effects on graduation rates and student achievement.

Holder, who will teach poetry at Central High School in Newark, N.J., starting later this year, says the verdict is already in for her: Students who were previously disinterested in class have become excited about learning.

"They like being educated by people who are like them, seeing themselves as having a voice," she says. Holder is well-qualified to use the genre in her lessons—she's also a hip hop dancer and actress in New York City, which she says lends her credibility with her students.

"They feel like they can bond with you in a way," she says. "Hip hop is all about realness."

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