Why Rapping in English Class Inspires Me

If you haven’t seen NPR’s feature on Kendrick Lamar’s visit to Brian Mooney’s English class, watch the video below or read the article. Mooney’s original blog post that found its way to Lamar and reflections after the visit are where you can get more details.

I stumbled on this over a month ago and I keep thinking about it. I don’t teach English and I don’t like rap, but this inspires me. Aside from the obvious English-class homerun, I love how it also reflects the educational strengths of project-based schools I’ve visited and read about. Here’s why:

The teacher played to his strengths. Part of Mooney’s graduate studies are with a program that working on incorporating hip-hop into curriculum. Even though the juxtaposition of Toni Morrison and Kendrick Lamar exceeded his own expectations, he started with a solid base.

The teacher played to student interests. The choice of a hip-hop album was deliberate as the genre resonated with the students. I can imagine someone seeing this and wanting to do the exact same thing in their class, but what are the student interests? What other artists might connect to their population? Here, it was a perfect fit.

Students created original work and received feedback from many sources. The study of To Pimp a Butterfly and The Bluest Eyes together seems to hit many educational biggies – classic work paired with current commentary generates student interest followed by novel conversations. Too often this ends with writing a comparison paper. Instead, in addition to thoughtful prompts, Mooney’s students wrote their own lyrics and poems to be read to others. When a student does something to be handed in to a teacher, they are often less self-conscious than if they produce original work for peers or a new audience. Here, students received feedback from peers inside and outside of their class, and ultimately from Kendrick Lamar.

Showcasing student work elevated it. This is where we, as teachers, need to wade into uncomfortable waters; we can’t know what students will produce and are often nervous to show it off before we know it will be good. We should instead guide them to improve their work, be proud of it, and to show it off. We all can’t have Kendrick Lamar come visit our schools, so a coffee shop reading or poetry slam could have been a great alternative showcase. Mooney: “More than anything else, I wanted to make sure the focus of the event was our students and their work.”

The teacher pushed hard to make new things happen. In his reflection on the visit, Mooney says “Often times, our opponents are the very colleagues, administrators, school boards, superintendents, and parents (and sometimes even the kids themselves!) who we depend on for support.” A minority of his colleagues “opposed Kendrick’s visit. They heard a “rapper” was coming to school and dismissed the event. Some even refused to attend even after an explanation was offered.” But most supported the students and the once-in-a-lifetime visit. His reflections, the students’ quotes, and the discussion created was obviously worth any opposition.

I continue to be inspired by this story. I only hope that my own students can eventually have their work recognized by many others as well. It’s much easier to put them through the motions and not go through the trouble. But, like most schools, change is tough, and individual students and teachers often have to be the ones to make it.

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