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Finding the Genius in Hip Hop Education

| Suzie Boss

Author and educator Sam Seidel recalls meeting a student during a tour of the High School for the Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minn. When Seidel asked if he could buy one of the student's instrumentals, the young man told him no, but maybe they could work out a licensing arrangement. Then the student whipped out a contract.

This mix of confidence, creativity, and business moxie is all part of the real-world education that students gain at HSRA. A project-based urban high school started by rapper David "TC" Ellis, HSRA is a launching pad for the innovative thinking that Seidel describes in vivid detail in Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education.

Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education from sam seidel on Vimeo

Seidel will be one of three keynoters at PBL World, an upcoming gathering of educators focused on empowering students through project-based learning. PBL World takes place June 18-22 in Napa, Calif., and is a partnership of the Buck Institute for Education and Napa Valley Unified School District. Along with Seidel, keynoters include global education expert Yong Zhao, author of Catching Up or Leading the Way, and Cindy Johanson, executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

I caught up with Sam Seidel by phone recently to talk about Hip Hop Genius and the power of real-world projects.


In your book, you define "hip hop genius" as the creative resourcefulness found in the face of limited resources. Hip hop artists are expert at what you call flipping somethin' outta nothin'. They reuse cardboard boxes as dance floors, turn tin cans into TV satellite dishes, and remix music tracks to make new sounds. Do you see opportunities to bring this kind of thinking into education?

Resourcefulness is the key. On a global level, we all need to learn to use resources more wisely. How do you take what some consider trash and turn it into amazing things? There are incredible examples of students doing that through project-based learning. A lot of times, it's happening outside of school. But there's no reason it can't happen inside school.

At PBL World, your audience will be teachers and school leaders who already are advocates of project-based learning. How might you challenge them to take PBL in new directions?

PBL can be perceived to be something that's successful for a more affluent, more privileged population. In urban education reform, you see a push for more regimented, more drill-and-kill learning to get kids ready to pass tests. PBL is important for students in all contexts. There are some kids in the 'hood who need and can thrive in regimented situations. They can put on the uniform and do well if they get into a charter or public version of a prep school. But for other kids, it's not going to work -- and we know that it's not working. (Nationally, more than a million high school students are projected to leave high school this year without a diploma.) For some of these students, a project-based learning environment can be a path to success.

In Hip Hop Genius, you emphasize the value of authentic projects that grow out of student interests. These aren't cookie-cutter projects that teachers can dust off and reuse each year. Why is it worth the effort to bring student voice into the design of projects?

If we can give students the skills and confidence to conceive of, design, and complete a project, that is a huge gift. If someone can say, I'd like to be able to do this in my personal life or create that product, and then they know how to go about doing the research, learning, putting in the work to complete it -- this is what will allow them to succeed in life. It might be in an entrepreneurial sense or in more traditional academics, but they know how to build, design, write, or perform something. That's huge.

How can teachers help students identify project-worthy ideas?

It's difficult. I've spent time watching advisers asking students, what do you want to do? What are you passionate about? Some students will answer point-blank: I want to publish a book of poetry, or, I want to create a new flavor of soda. But for students who were never asked that before, it can be very difficult to answer. Once they've hit on an idea, then it means designing your own project instead of somebody giving you worksheets that you fill out. As a student, you're learning life skills. You have to figure out backward planning. You know the product you want to create. Now, what are the things you need to learn, what are the materials you need to gather, who will you need on your team? Then you set mini-deadlines, checkpoints. If want to get to that end point, what has to happen along the way? Those are huge skills and highly employable skills.

Your book describes students working alongside experts and mentors. Why is working with adults something students need to practice?

In the book, I describe a student named Lil C. She's working on a book and asks a lawyer to help her draft a release form for people to sign when she interviews them. She knows how to reach out to a professional to get advice. I realized as I spoke with her, here I was, working on my own book, and I hadn't done that! These are real-world skills that she's gaining as a high school student, and they're skills that are sorely missing in almost every school in this country.

These are challenging times for public schools. Does the story you share in Hip Hop Genius give us reason to hope about the future of education?

I do derive hope from the metaphor of hip hop. In the '70s, young people in the Bronx came out of a situation that was ripe with inequality. They took their skills and figured out new ways to communicate. It makes me think about the current state of our educational system. There are a lot of young people today still in similar situations. How can we help them be creative and resourceful, take what's there, flip it, and create something better? How can we create the best possible conditions for them to be supported in doing that kind of work? And how can we work in partnership with them rather than in opposition?

To learn more about Seidel's upcoming visit to PBL World, visit the conference website. Follow Seidel on Twitter @husslington.




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Comments (19)

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Voice Teacher & Educational Rap Enthusiast

GENIUS INDEED!

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I don't know how I missed this discussion or video, but I absolutely applaud the concepts for teaching here. I work for Rhythm, Rhyme, Results (www.educationalrap.com) and we see kids creating and thriving through hip hop and rap all the time. You can see perfect examples of this on our YouTube page: www.youtube.com/educationalrap. Bravo!

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Dead Horse Award

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OK, the rest of us are done listening to this exchange. There are plenty of places elsewhere online you can continue if you'd like. Any future posts that engage in this tired debate here will be deleted.

Life Skills Support Teacher

Quote: Mr. Hauck, it's clear

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Mr. Hauck, it's clear by reading your comments here and in other places that you've got a pretty established world-view that doesn't leave much room for learning.

By the time you reach your sixth decade of life, your senses can become jaded. I've crammed two lifetimes into my years and I also know garbage from gold.

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But I'd like to challenge you to consider whether Jimi Hendrix used the guitar in the manner it was designed? Watch his performance at Monterey and tell me where fire fits into the acceptable uses of a guitar in your view?

You're in need of a history lesson ... Hendrix burning his guitar at Monterey was not a sign of genius, but rather the actions of an individual under the influence of LSD performing the equivalent of dropping his pants in front of an audience. He exploited the collectively stoned nature of the audience. Simple pure hippie dippy "faaaaaaaaar ouuuuuuuut maaaaaaaaaan!" stuff. Unfortunately, stoned audiences in the future wanted to see the drop-the-pants part of the Jimi's act, much to his dismay. Jim Morrison went through the same thing.

As for the Beatles, they did very very little at EMI studios with EMI equipment that was not sanctioned by the engineering staff. The Beatles were recording in a true professional studio with professional personnel as their guides. They weren't working on the margins in low rent facilities.

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Herbie Hancock, who is clearly a genius in the jazz world, recognized the significance of a re-purposed turntable as a musical instrument...

Very often, fine talents will latch on to a nouveau taste in order to gain credibility with younger audiences (aka "selling out"). It's really a shame that a talent like Herbie Hancock went from playing with legends like Miles Davis to recording dreck like "Rockit." Thankfully, during that period, he worked on "'Round Midnight," which is an excellent film about a classic musical genre ... jazz. Beyond jazz, blues, soul, and gospel, black music's talent pool thins considerably. Give me Robert Randolph, Sharon Jones, or Keb' Mo' any day.

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Troll away!

(yawn) The bottom line here that you can't defend the indefensible.

Here's something to think about .... how many listeners of classical music do you find hanging out on street corners, getting into trouble, clogging our judicial system, and ending up in prison?

The fact is you don't. That's why the musical genre you so dearly support doesn't belong in any legitimate school curriculum.

Inconsistent with the design?

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So, using a piece of technology in a way that is inconsistent with its design makes it absurd? So when the Beatles:

-used a loudspeaker as a microphone (Paperback Writer)
-used a Leslie speaker for instruments (and voices) other than the organ
-played tapes backwards

This was absurd?

a team of teachers using social media to connect and learn. We teach in OH

A lost cause, but...

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Mr. Hauck, it's clear by reading your comments here and in other places that you've got a pretty established world-view that doesn't leave much room for learning.

But I'd like to challenge you to consider whether Jimi Hendrix used the guitar in the manner it was designed? Watch his performance at Monterey and tell me where fire fits into the acceptable uses of a guitar in your view? Or maybe you could consider whether or not The Beatles used a 4-track in the way it was intended. Or for that matter, consider whether or not a part of genius is to take traditional forms and re-purpose the function of those forms.

Which brings me back to pedagogy, a topic which you seem disinclined to discuss. Hip Hop pedagogy, like it or not (and we'll be fine without you, I'm sure), is an approach that seeks to consider the traditional form and then alter it in a way that is both relevant and resourceful. Herbie Hancock, who is clearly a genius in the jazz world, recognized the significance of a re-purposed turntable as a musical instrument. I'm not sure of your jazz chops, Mr. Hauck, but if the approach used by Grandmaster Flash is good enough for Herbie Hancock (a professionally "trained" musician) then I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he might have a bit more credibility than you.

Troll away!

Life Skills Support Teacher

Quote: but I just don't

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but I just don't understand why a turntable isn't a "real" instrument for you, or why you believe you have the positioning to speak for the entirety of musicians.

A record player, or turntable, was designed to playback pre-recorded vinyl discs. I've seen "scratching" demonstrations and it was clearly using a turn table in a manner that was inconsistent with the design. First of all, the cartridge containing the needle was not designed to go continuously back and forth in a haphazard manner. It's harmful to the needle and secondly, harmful to the record by risking scratches and scrapes, rendering it unlistenable for normal listening.

So the whole idea, by its very concept, is absurd.

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Is a computer a "real" instrument for musical production in your eyes?

Well, an original Moog synthesizer built in the 60s was an off-shoot of computer technology. Certainly every digital music device since then owes its existence to computer technology.

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What about digital voice modifiers?

What about them? They have enabled people who can't sing to sound somewhat passable. It just sounds so phony.

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By limiting how you define "genius"

My definition follows the traditionally accepted definition formed over the years.

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you are limiting technological advances that are having a profound effect not only on music but on higher education more broadly, and while I don't particularly care about your intellectual growth (especially considering you so proudly boast about not reading) but I do care about the students entrusted to you.

Oh please! I've gotten along quite well teaching for 16 years without your help, but thanks all the same.

I read quite bit, actually. You see, I have to call into question your ability to comprehend. I said that I am not influenced by what I read in books regarding socio-political matters. That's what the PhD student and I were discussing at that moment. Regarding socio-political matters, my eyes, ears, and intuition are my guides.

In my estimation. Jay-Z and Kanye West are little more than very wealthy but disreputable individuals who represent the worst of black America. They aren't the only ones, however. Any kid who considers these individuals as proper role models to be admired is being conned. Money means nothing. It's one's personal values and good behavior that makes a proper role model. It's the example you set for others. They do not set a very good example for kids. Lil' Wayne is probably the worst of them all at the moment.

I've had several black clergymen agree with me that the diminished influences of churches in black neighborhoods are among the leading causes of the whole problem with the the inner cities, along with pandering politicians who require a dependent underclass to remain in power. The churches were the glue that kept these neighborhoods strong and cohesive.

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[FYI: Arianna Huffington still doesn't speak proper English, neither does Javier Bardem, Selma Hayek, etc..etc..etc...]

None of the people you mentioned were born and raised in the United States.

As much as I loath commenting

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As much as I loath commenting on internet forums, I cannot help but jump in here with a few questions/comments:

First, I am curious to know how you define instrument. I know that may be pure semantics, but I just don't understand why a turntable isn't a "real" instrument for you, or why you believe you have the positioning to speak for the entirety of musicians. Is a computer a "real" instrument for musical production in your eyes? What about digital voice modifiers? By limiting how you define "genius" you are limiting technological advances that are having a profound effect not only on music but on higher education more broadly, and while I don't particularly care about your intellectual growth (especially considering you so proudly boast about not reading) but I do care about the students entrusted to you.

Also, I am not sure the usefulness of defining "genius" so narrowly. Lennon is Lennon and Sean Carter (Jay Z) is Sean Carter. I love "Strawberry Fields Forever," but I also love "On To The Next One" [Jay-Z's incredible disavowal of traditional "hip-hop" mores] or his collaboration with Kanye West on "Watch the Throne" [check out "No Church in the Wild" for instance]. When we attempt apples-to-oranges comparisons all we are really doing is excluding innovating, new or cutting-edge in favor of what we know and readily understand. Obviously you are more comfortable with a certain style, taste - but that doesn't mean you are correct [beauty yada yada yada beholder, and all that jazz].

But perhaps the real reason I'm commenting is because I cannot help but feel as if M. A. Hauck is voicing an ideology that still pervades pedagogy. I don't understand why rigorous education and high expectations aren't compatible with musical innovation or success in America. I don't understand why you privilege musical instruments and training (narrowly defined) without at least acknowledging that not every child in this country has access to musical instruments or training and that for some children the only option is making something out of nothing - or being nothing. To deride that, to dismiss that, to belittle that because you object to the times passing you by is incredibly sad and short-sighted. But more disheartening is that fact that all of these judgements are passed without any evidence besides M. A. Hauck's supposed experience. [Being old and being correct are not synonymous, by the way.]

I wait with bated breath for his sharp rebuttal...but he should be a bit more specific [FYI: Arianna Huffington still doesn't speak proper English, neither does Javier Bardem, Selma Hayek, etc..etc..etc...]

Life Skills Support Teacher

Quote: If Jimi Hendrix is a

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If Jimi Hendrix is a genius for what he did on the quitar, Grandmaster Flash is a genius for what he did on the turntables.

I doubt you would find any real musician playing real musical instruments who would agree with that.

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If Lennon is a genius, so is Jay-Z.

If Jay-Z wrote and performed anything that comes remotely close to "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "A Day in the Life," please let me know.

When you make "something out of nothing," it usually still remains "nothing," especially if you have no true artistic talent.

This is why our culture is sliding towards a dismal abyss of mediocrity where no judgments, no demands, or high expectations are required. Someone can bang on some trashcan lids and blabber some random nonsense into a mic and it's called art. It's an insult to those who actually train in the arts and produce work of lasting value, i.e. something that still remain meaningful in 50-100-150 (or beyond) years. Art is judged by whether or not it withstands the test of time.

Rap/hip hop hasn't passed that test of time. Popularity doesn't mean a thing.

FYI: If you don't speak proper English, you'll never get a real job that pays well in the professional world.

I can make all these pronouncements because I have taken the time to be properly trained, mentored, and above all, to have turned it all into years of experience in order to make clear and concise judgments as to what's quality work and what's not.

a team of teachers using social media to connect and learn. We teach in OH

hip hop genius

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There are too many thinks to pick through, but we can start with a few geniuses from the hip-hop world. To suggest that genius can be found in one genre of music, necessitates that it can be found in all genres of music. I'll throw Dj Q-bert up against George Martin as a genius all day. If Jimi Hendrix is a genius for what he did on the quitar, Grandmaster Flash is a genius for what he did on the turntables. If Monet is a genius, so is Basquiat. If Lennon is a genius, so is Jay-Z. If Van Morrison is a genius for his delivery and phrasing, so than is Eminem.

But that's not the real argument I want to make. I'd like to point out that Mr. Seidel's work is more about pedagogy than content. While the content, I believe, holds up to the genius test, his book and the short video point more towards the concept of "making something out of nothing" in a pedagogical sense. I would figure, as a "real world" thinker, that Mr. Hauck would applaud the kind of self-determination and self-reliance suggested in Mr. Seidel's work. So far from blaming the system and crying foul, the students, teachers, and administrators that Mr. Seidel is writing about are doing their work in spite of those easy-to-name barriers that you'd like to argue don't have any real basis.

It's a shame to see an educator so clearly missing out on recognizing the most significant artistic movement in their lifetime because they're hung up on fashion and slang. I'm not a fan of country music, but I'd never stoop to dismissing the artform because I don't like blue jeans or chewing tobacco. I'm sure that as a fan of rock music you'd at least be able to recognize that the people who dismissed your choice of music as inane drivel were as wrong as you are now.

And any teacher who claims not to read books should step aside and give young people like Alexandria all the support she needs while she studies up to get better. That's what hip hop is all about, they call it "dropping science". Let that be your first step into the substandard patois you don't recognize as worth your time.

Regarding shifting

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Regarding shifting demographics, U.S. Census tracking places people of color as the majority before 2040, making it a trend not unique to California. These demographics make it an exciting time to be working in education with young people.

I’m flattered that you looked me up and know my credentials, and while I am in the younger generation of educators, that doesn’t mean you know anything about my experience, who I am, and what I do. Additionally, I’ve used all of the texts I’ve offered in high school classrooms, and I don’t consider them geared to the academic elite. I agree with you that esoteric circles can be cloistered and mind-numbing at times, and that information should flow freely outside peer-reviewed journals that almost no one reads. This is why Hip-Hop Genius, the text we should be debating, is such a gem. It wasn’t written as someone’s dissertation turned book, doesn’t come from an academic press, and is accessible regardless of degree. I urge you to make an exception to your ban on reading books to shape your thinking and try this one. I don’t expect it to fundamentally rock your world (but if it does, go with it!), and I would be interested in hearing about your critiques of the topics and case studies in the book.

Finally, I’m glad that you find my ideas idealistic because I think that idealism and hope are the strongest weapons we have to survive in this world. Those two and a healthy dose of radical, transformational love.

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