Hip-hop gets a bad rap. Misconstrued as vulgar, the genre actually arose as a positive alternative to gang violence in New York City during the 1970s. The subjects cover social justice, the music fuels arts and dance and the lyrics can be analyzed as poetry.
Now, in a UW-affiliated project, its being used in social studies lessons for 6th-12th graders.
Michele Myers, documentary producer at Seattle radio station KEXP, and Tiffany Grobelski, a KEXP volunteer and a UW geography graduate student, created the lessons partly because hip-hop is the main music of choice for kids this age – and they werent afraid of raising some eyebrows.
The five lessons align with national and state learning standards in social studies, language arts, music, visual and performing arts and media literacy. They cover current social-justice and political issues and develop kids artistic inclinations through graffiti-style art projects. The lessons also encourage students to think and write about cultural identity and how they fit into the world.
Download the lessons here.
Myers needed help developing the lesson plans and thats when Grobelski, who hails from Chicago, got involved. The project “addresses my passion for teaching and my desire to bring social-justice ideas to the classroom,” said Grobelski, who helped create the lessons during her internship last year at KEXP. And it relates to her academic work, too.
“Human geographers study social, political, and cultural processes in relation to space and place,” she said. “They put social events into historical and geographical context.”
For instance, in one lesson, students analyze lyrics by the Seattle group Common Market. The lyrics describe moving away from home:
“Some memories I kept;
Others left, others I must have let go to protect.”
“I think these themes about home and identity are rich areas for students to do their own exploring,” Grobelski said. ”Plus, the lyrics contain many poetic devices like tone, rhyme and alliteration, so they lend themselves to literary analysis.”
Other lessons are more hands-on, such as one in which students compile their own playlists.
“The skills in putting together a playlist are like those you would need in creating a written piece of work: thinking about tone, audience and transitions,” Grobelski said. “Its also a fun and creative activity that students are likely doing already, so this is a way of breaking down the wall between what students do for fun and what they do in school.”
Grobelski and Myers hope the lessons give students and the public a more accurate account of the genre.
“People dont understand hip-hop, they think that its this untouchable music for education,” Myers said. Hip-hop is “about self-discovery and self-identity.”
Hip-hop started off harmlessly enough: “Throw your hands high in the air…Ya rockin to the beat without a care.” For many Americans, those lyrics from “Rappers Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang were their first brush with hip-hop. Released in 1979, the song is considered to be the first commercially successful hip-hop recording.
Since then, commercial hip-hops emphasis on profitable, sensationalist subjects like money and sex has often given the music style a bad name, Myers said. But other hip-hop artists use the genre in a positive way to convey political platforms, or as a method of self-discovery.
Through hip-hop, artists tell of “their own experiences and increasing the belief that all humans, despite their race, face the same kinds of basic struggles,” Myers said. And those are some of the messages that Myers and Grobelski hope resound with the students.
Teachers are testing the hip-hop lessons in their classrooms. Richard Truax, a social studies teacher at Seattles Garfield High School, said his students were “very engaged” when he used portions of the lessons in his advanced placement classes last June, just after the AP exam and before school let out for the summer.
Its a time when “kids are burned out” and its hard to keep their attention, said Truax, who has taught social studies for 20 years. He focused on the origins of hip-hop, showing students a video of the lively-costumed Afrika Bambaataa who helped establish hip-hop culture. Apart from cultural history, the lessons also tie into how music is spread globally – or diffused – which is a wider theme in social studies.
“Theyre a mixture of video clips, interviews and give chances for kids to respond,” he said. Its “a great way to get kids to connect.”
Truax also said that the lessons are “flexible enough” to make them fit with other classroom activities.
The hip-hop lesson plans and Grobelskis internship were funded by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation given jointly to KEXP, the UW and the EMP Museum in Seattle. UWs Simpson Center for the Humanities oversaw the two-year grant, called the American Music Partnership of Seattle, which ended in spring 2011.
If youre new to hip-hop, see the playlist below to get you started. We hope it gets “Ya rockin’ to the beat without a care.”
“Tobacco Road,” by Common Market
“Vipassana,” by Macklemore
“The Inkwell,” by Blue Scholars
“Circus Hounds,” by Victor Shade
“Express Yourself,” by N.W.A.
“Eye Know,” by De La Soul
“Mr. Wendal,” by Arrested Development
“Rappers Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang
“One Giant Leap,” by My Culture
“The Rain,” by Missy Elliott