Learning Hip Hop: Closing the Black-White Achievement Gap Through Student Realities
The seemingly perpetual achievement gaps between Black youth who are deeply entrenched in hip-hop culture and their White counterparts from other settings is an issue that has plagued U.S. education for decades. According to the national statistics for Black and White eighth graders, only 9 % of Black students test at or above proficient in civics (compared to 31% for White students, 13% in math (43% for White students), and 15% in reading (41% for White students. Researchers who work with Black youth have suggested that the reasoning behind these achievement gaps includes the fact that mainstream school culture is inconsistent with the life experiences of these students, which explains why they view schools as boring and unrelatable. Many teachers believe that the answer to solving these issues is rooted in incorporating the cultures of their students into the classroom curriculum. Sadly, the implementation of these practices are often ineffective because teachers are misinformed about the intricacies of their students’ cultures. This is especially true for teachers who reduce hip-hop culture to just rap music.
The elements of hip-hop culture
Black youth are engaged in hip-hop in ways beyond just listening or purchasing rap music. They spend an enormous amount of time memorizing, creating, and indulging in hip-hop and have found success in creating hip-hop at a higher rate than people from other racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although rap is described as the “voice of hip-hop”, other elements of hip-hop ( i.e., DJ-ing, graffiti/aerosol art, dance, knowledge of self) also have a significant influence on the identity development of Black youth. The affiliated expressions of the hip-hop elements like debating, challenging the status quo, or even talking and style of dress has historically been categorized as “anti-school” which in turn affects how educators who teach Black youth engage with their students. Teachers who buy into the misperceptions about hip-hop culture and separate the hip-hop realities of their students from contemporary school culture are doing their students a disservice by depriving them of an authentic space for academic support. The willingness to submerge themselves into the realities of Black youth by using specific pedagogical tools is what teachers need to effectively support the academic success of their students.
Learning hip-hop with reality pedagogy
Perhaps the most essential step that teachers must take to efficiently engage in the everyday realities of Black youth who are immersed in hip-hop culture, is to recognize that their lived experiences should be the root of teaching and learning in the classroom. The official approach to this type of instruction is called Reality Pedagogy. Black youth whose realities are embedded in hip-hop share a collective experience with others within the culture such as types of music listened to and the shared oppression that they endure in their societies. Reality pedagogy requires the educator to identify these collective experiences and bridge them to the instructional practices in the classroom. To effectively do this, teachers must reach beyond abstract suggestions for experiencing the realities of Black youth such as living in the same neighborhoods as their students, working with the same community organizations or after school programs, and participating in the same social activities. While these suggestions can produce positive results, one could question the practicality of such abstract ideas across various educational settings. It is my assertion that teachers need specific tools to effectively delve into the hip-hop realities of their students and to develop their own cultural competence. My response to this issue includes five steps which are rooted Reality Pedagogy called The 5 R’s. They are: recognize the value of cultures other than your own, relinquish power, refocus classroom responsibilities, reproduce out-of-school structures within the classroom, and respond with affirmation.
The 5 R’s
The first R, recognize the value of cultures other than your own, is the primary step that teachers must engage in. This step involves developing the critical self reflection skills to decipher the ways in which the media depicts hip-hop culture and other stereotypes associated with Black youth. Teachers must also fight their own need to be a “savior” of Black youth by recognizing that the very “deficiencies” that they think they are saving their students from are actually facets of their identity. Furthermore, teachers must confront their own biases when it comes to hip-hop and realize how these biases might affect the academic achievement of their students.
The second R, relinquish power, requires teachers to dismantle power structures within the classroom. Teachers can do this by creating an open space for dialogue between themselves and their students for the purpose of gaining insight into how the classroom can be improved from their student’s point of view. Another benefit of having an open dialogue in the classroom is that teachers are able to derive information about the hip-hop realities of their students which can be used as a foundation for instruction. The next concept associated with relinquishing power is the use of coteaching. Coteaching allows students to actively participate in their own learning process by taking on traditional teacher roles such as planning and teaching lessons. The only prerequisite for coteaching is that students must deliver the content through their own cultural lens. By doing this, students are able to showcase how they believe academic content must be taught. In this process, teachers are able to learn from their students by observing ways that they can teach more effectively.
The third R, refocus responsibilities, is based on the hip-hop trope of “having each other’s backs” when adversity arises. Often, classroom responsibility is very straight-forward in the sense that each student is responsible for their own learning. For this step, teachers must refocus classroom responsibility so that everyone (teachers and students) is responsible for each other’s learning. This requires teachers to be open with their students and let them know that the learning process is one for all. They should let students know that they do not have all of the answers when it comes to understanding their realities and that they are always looking to gain more knowledge in order to have their life stories validated in the classroom. Additionally, teachers should promote the spirit of “having each other’s backs” among their students by encouraging them to work together on academic content. An example of this would be encouraging the class to help a student solve an equation in front of the class.
The fourth R, reproduce out-of-school structures within the classroom, requires teachers to investigate the social patterns of their students outside of a school setting. Black youth who are immersed in hip-hop culture have been known to engage in similar activities outside of school, such as rapping together, listening to the same music, or learning the newest dances. Additionally, out-of-school structures like riding the bus together or living in the same neighborhood should be acknowledged as symbolic cultural artifacts of hip-hop that foster a sense of community between students. Teachers must take advantage of these communal practices by finding ways to incorporate them in the classroom. An example of this would be allowing students who ride the same bus to work together in the classroom. To take it a step further, teachers should require that part of their students’ classroom activities include incorporating their joint everyday experiences of riding the bus together as a focal point for engaging in their academic work.
The fifth R, respond with affirmation, is an important step that teachers must take to validate and celebrate the hip-hop realities of Black youth in the classroom. Teachers must create safe and trusting environments that are respectful to hip-hop culture by getting rid of the “anti-school” attitude often associated with it. Additionally, when teachers see expressions of “hip-hopness” (i.e., critiquing the opinions of others and asking questions that challenge the status-quo), they must recognize it and respond with affirmation instead of discipline. Acknowledging and celebrating the cultural expressions of hip hop youth is a signal to Black youth that their realities are authentic and are not wrong despite what mainstream classroom culture suggests.
Teachers must go beyond a surface level understanding of the hip-hop realities of their Black students in order to effectively support their academic success. Validating the nuances of hip-hopness within the classroom is essential to fostering a connection between the academic content and student interests. It is my suggestion that my proposed “The 5 R’s” steps( recognize the value of cultures other than your own, relinquish power, refocus classroom responsibilities, reproduce out-of-school structures within the classroom, and respond with affirmation) can be used by teachers to recreate the classroom experience for Black youth whose lived realities have been rejected in the space where they spend the majority of their time: school. While there is no official starting point to addressing some of the dismal statistics related to the academic performance of Black youth compared to their White peers, I would suggest that if teachers are intentional and implement specific strategies like the five that I outlined above, changes will begin to happen and achievement gaps will ultimately narrow.