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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Finding the Genius in Hip Hop Education

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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.




Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Should "hip hop" and "genius" be used in the same sentence? Doesn't the association kind of devalue the true meaning of the latter?

Let's consider the culture that unfortunately developed out of that "situation" in 1970s Bronx. We have a culture that glorifies misogyny, violence, criminality, irresponsible sexual practices, homophobia ... where impressionable youth imitate the so-called "gangstas" responsible for producing this music.

I think as teachers, it is our responsibility to steer kids away from this self-degrading culture that does not promote healthy positive values.

Please, let's not compare this present urban culture to the urban inspired R&B of the past.

The Temptations weren't shooting at The Four Tops.

And people wonder why there is so much apathy and dissolution in the urban neighborhoods of America.

Terry Heick's picture
Blogger

I think it might help to first fully understand the culture of hip-hop, and the concept behind "remixing high school" before making sweeping generalizations of either rap as an industry, or this kind of effort to innovate ed reform. I understand your concerns--I too am uncomfortable with the issues you mention. I'm glad, therefore, that they don't accurately or comprehensively represent hip-hop, or its potential in the classroom.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Believe me, I understand plenty, having witnessed its emergence decades ago. It has no place in a K-12 classroom. The substandard English associated with the culture should be enough to exclude it from an educational setting.

Terry Heick's picture
Blogger

It would be best that we simply agree to (strongly) disagree, but I appreciate your passion for your position.

Alexandrina Agloro's picture

To say using hip-hop and genius in the same phrase devalues the term genius is a misinformed, if not culturally imperialistic, stance.

Hip-hop did not just spring out of a "situation" in the Bronx, hip-hop was born as a life-affirming cultural development in the face of urban city planning racism. When Robert Moses decided to split the Bronx by building the Cross Bronx Expressway, it caused massive white flight and abandoned communities, and those who stayed came up with creative ways to continue to live. Cindy Campbell and her brother Kool Herc threw the very first hip-hop party as a way to raise funds to buy school supplies. I believe that's creative thinking in the face of adversity.

To say that all hip-hop is gangsta rap is a gross misunderstanding and devaluing of what hip-hop culture has to offer. First off, referencing gangsta rap as the ills of hip-hop is bit antiquated Tipper Gore-style from the 90s, and several prominent scholars have already addressed this issue at length so I don't feel the need to repeat old arguments here. Please see Tricia Rose (1994), Jeff Chang (2005), Craig Watkins (2005), and Bakari Kitwana (2003) and others as start if you want learn more about this. More importantly, commercial hip-hop that plays into the violence, homophobia, misogyny, etc. you speak of is not created in a vacuum. There are (heavily white) audiences with insatiable appetites for reiterations of pathological imagery of black culture, and record companies who seek out, sign, and control artists to continue to produce these messages. And white appropriation and control of black popular culture has existed since enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to America, through white audiences watching minstrel shows, white audiences watching bebop and jazz, the careful curation of 60s R&B artists, and now hip-hop. All of this notwithstanding, commercial rap does not even break the surface of the myriad of creative expression alive within hip-hop. Homo-hop, female empowered MCs, and hip-hop vegan chefs complicate this seemly simplistic understanding of hip-hop culture.

As a fellow educator, I'm also particularly bothered by the flippant dismissal of "urban" America through apathy and the dissolution of neighborhoods. Depending on where we teach, it is our jobs to inspire our students to have a deeper level of civic engagement and to care about their neighborhoods or to be more open and tolerant of something that is outside of their realm of understanding. This particular text focuses on how young people in an urban neighborhood are filled with hope and determination for their futures, despite having to start by overcoming the prejudice of the apathy of outsiders already looking down on them.

In conclusion, it's always bad form to hate on something you haven't actually investigated. Read the book, then let's talk.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote] As a fellow educator, I'm also particularly bothered by ... [/quote]

Let me share with you what I'm bothered by ... people who insist on supporting issues involving minority representation with race baiting, finger pointing, and the "blame game." By the way, this culture which has obviously influenced your thinking, still can't discern between legitimate criticism and true hatred. Hatred is what Nazi Germany had for Jews. You've got to learn that degrees of expression do exist. It's like calling anyone who criticizes a minority as "racist" or anyone who criticizes the gay agenda as a "homophobe." It's nonsensical to fight perceived incendiary rhetoric with more incendiary rhetoric.

[quote]This particular text focuses on how young people in an urban neighborhood are filled with hope and determination for their futures, despite having to start by overcoming the prejudice of the apathy of outsiders already looking down on them. [/quote]

That's refreshing to hear. I hope that their school mentors are encouraging them to reject the substandard patois and the silly looking clothes that embody the worst aspects of the culture.

But referencing back to the original poster's article, who in the whole rap/hip hop world can actually be called a "genius" in the truest sense, as in, a person with measured ability and achievement in the 99th percentile? I don't mean a measurement by a test score, but by what they have accomplished that very few people could come close to matching.

As far as music goes, Mozart was a genius. Lennon and McCartney were geniuses. Prince is a genius. Jimi Hendrix was a genius, and so forth.

Alexandrina Agloro's picture

I'm not sure which group of people you're referencing when you refer to a "minority." If you're referring to racial/ethnic groups, "minority" is a problematic term. In California, the previous white "majority" is no longer such, and the demographics of the United States are shifting in a similar fashion. These shifting demographics are why the previous cultural hegemony and industrial revolution methods of teaching are less relevant.

I understand that the world shifting in ways one doesn't comprehend can be scary, and that fear of the unknown plays out as distaste or disdain. And as educators, this is where our commitment to being lifelong learners continues to serve our students. Like I previously said, there are many resources (some in my previous post) that will help make sense of this still emergent movement- including Hip Hop Genius, the original reason for the post. And while you may still disagree with every single author/book/article/theory once you've read something, at least you will be equipped to be able to say something more articulate about hip-hop culture than "substandard patois and silly looking clothes."

On a more personal note, artistic genius is incredibly subjective. Personally, Lennon and McCartney hold no bearing or influence in my life, but I understand that my own taste is not the arbiter of creative genius. Those artists you mention have had profound effects on people's lives, and that alone is enough to warrant attention for creative genius. I would posit that many hip-hop culture makers have had the same profound influence on many people in the post-1965 generation, and that is enough to give creative genius credit.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote]I'm not sure which group of people you're referencing when you refer to a "minority." If you're referring to racial/ethnic groups, "minority" is a problematic term.[/quote]

I refer to under-represented groups that have specific legal protections to guarantee more equal access and representation, based on race, ethnicity, or gender.

[quote] In California, the previous white "majority" is no longer such, and the demographics of the United States are shifting in a similar fashion. These shifting demographics are why the previous cultural hegemony and industrial revolution methods of teaching are less relevant.[/quote]

California, along the with rest of the American Southwest and into Florida, is unique in that regard. You cannot generalize that trend to the rest of the USA.

[quote] and that fear of the unknown plays out as distaste or disdain. And as educators, this is where our commitment to being lifelong learners continues to serve our students. [/quote]

Alexandrina, I know you are young, idealistic, and full of the hubris that accompanies a major university Ph.D program. That's fine, but that's not the real world. The classroom is not the real world. Textbooks and peer-reviewed articles are not the real world, either. It's all theory and quite a bit of it is pure baloney, especially in the social sciences. You can't realize this until you have removed yourself from these insular and quite narrow-minded environments. This is especially true of post-secondary institutions, where I have taught and matriculated. Hence, I rely on my sight, my hearing, and my intuition to make judgments. They never fail me. I don't read books to shape my thinking. I think independently. Most every author whose works are primarily targeted towards the academic elite has an agenda to sell a particular world or societal view that I find very troubling. Even when I was in university in both capacities, I was constantly at odds with teachers and colleagues for their often intolerant world or societal views. For some people, a "Ph.D" following their name virtually deifies them in their own minds. This is why I don't trust or listen to many in higher academe.

[quote]you will be equipped to be able to say something more articulate about hip-hop culture than "substandard patois and silly looking clothes." [/quote]

Again, this presumption that my judgment will be swayed by some earnest, yet biased and agenda-driven, writing is naive.

[quote]Those artists you mention have had profound effects on people's lives, and that alone is enough to warrant attention for creative genius. [/quote]

Nonsense. Otherwise, anyone who simply sells millions of CDs of their music deserves to be labeled a genius.

Definition of "genius," (keeping in mind Howard Gardner's Seven Intelligences)

...someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight.

As you can see, it has nothing to do with popularity or "impact on people's lives."

I'll pose the same question to you again as before. Who in the rap hip/hop world fits the above definition?

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