Professional Learning

Finding the Genius in Hip Hop Education

It’s not just about the music

February 20, 2012

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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