What You Love Can Be a Shared Path of Exploration with Your Students

This post was written by educator NyRee Clayton-Taylor.

Hip hop is just something that I always loved personally without intentionally putting it into my craft when I became a teacher. But then when students would come in singing songs that I also listened to, there was just an instant connection with them. We started playing around like they might say a lyric and then I’d say the next lyric.

Because of my love of hip hop, my principal asked me to teach a special area class on writing. I redesigned my classroom to look like a hip hop video. I had a red carpet and graffiti on the walls. When they came into the classroom, we made it a whole scene, just enjoying each other, playing with language and rhythm, and exploring the lyrics of songs we loved. 

When the school had a program about the school’s namesake, Phyllis Wheatley, we were tasked with creating a collective project to write and perform a rap about Phyllis Wheatley. At that point, one student said, “I have a name for us – Young Prodigies.” Naming ourselves and creating our own hip hop community was the catalyst for everything to come – performing at the Muhammad Ali Center, at other places in our community, and continuing our writing during summer camps.

It’s not for me to tell them what to think, but for me to provide the space for thoughtful examination.

NyRee Clayton-Taylor

The Young Prodigies have always been inspired by and written about what’s going on in the world, starting with researching and exploring the life of Phyllis Wheatley and Muhammah Ali. After a while, they started asking their own questions and exploring them as inspiration for their songs. For example, they would ask why do we only learn about Black history during Black History Month? Even then, all they learn about is Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman. Or why do we always start our history with slavery when our history didn’t actually start with slavery? And they would add things like, “Sometimes when the teachers start talking about slavery, the white kids in the classroom look at us, the Black students, and it’s embarrassing.” I couldn’t believe all of these comments were coming from kids. They ask questions and we guide them to explore them and write about them. Over time, we built this beautiful community together where the students explore and write about topics in response to their own questions about their lived experiences, their environment, and current events they see around them such as reparations, Breonna Taylor, and The Crown Act

Over time, we have let the Young Prodigies lead and we follow their curiosities. They began asking more questions about our community and the natural environment around us, so we expanded our work into a summer camp called T.R.A.P. (Teaching Respect About the Planet) Camp, which merges hip hop, environmental science, and geography to teach Black students about the environment. We explore local issues of environmental justice like understanding how the land in our urban community used to look compared to its landscape now. We speak to community elders to understand what the land here looked like before the chemical plants arrived, and we research how redlining and other practices have led to these kinds of decisions that have shifted the land and the experiences of people who live here. 

When we spend time outdoors, we rely on their questions about Black history before slavery and consider what it was and is like in Africa. We talk about a portion of land in our urban community that used to be called “Little Africa” and has over time been redeveloped with chemical plants and harmful urban housing efforts that took away a natural part of the landscape in our community. When I was younger,  my uncle would tell stories about playing in the natural green space many called “Little Africa,” so I asked him to speak to the Young Prodigies in T.R.A.P. Camp to pass down the oral histories of how the experiences of nature for Black members of our community have shifted over time and we explore the questions young people have about why those changes have happened. By providing these opportunities to explore questions, our Young Prodigies form their own conclusions. It’s not for me to tell them what to think, but for me to provide the space for thoughtful examination. The questions come from there. And so do their lyrics.

NyRee Clayton-Taylor

NyRee’s Advice for Educators

  1. Serve as a guide.

My role as their educator is to serve as a guide and to set the context for their questions by giving them experiences where the questions can arise. Set the context for learning and trust students to find their own way. Let students lead by exploring their own questions.

  1. Provide opportunities to take authentic action in the community.

Hip hop was our vehicle for exploring universal issues beginning with learning about storytellers and leaders like Phyllis Wheatley and Muhammad Ali, but eventually engaging with our community about issues that the Young Prodigies either felt, understood, or lived. Because our foundation was letting students lead their own learning, when authentic opportunities arose for community engagement, we could take advantage of them or even create them for ourselves. Young Prodigies speak with policymakers and community leaders regularly now because their own learning has led them there. The community benefits from their engagement as much as they do.

  1. Connect your own passions to your craft as an educator.

I was able to connect hip hop to my teaching craft because of my own passion for it. Young people see right through inauthenticity. So while I would love for more and more educators to integrate hip hop into their work because of its power, I also do not recommend doing it if it is forced. Find your own opportunities to build authentic connections with young people and build learning opportunities for them from your own passions.

  1. Cross the boundaries of disciplines to create richer learning experiences.

Hip hop can be leveraged across disciplines – it goes far beyond reading and writing. T.R.A.P. Camp emerged because of the connections the Young Prodigies were making to social studies, science, and even math. We have a whole horizon to explore in these areas going forward with all of our passions for hip hop right at the core.

To engage, enlighten, and educate is NyRee Clayton-Taylor’s focus as she uses her creative writing class to explore the therapeutic healing of writing. By infusing the Kentucky Academic Standards and the elements of Hip-Hop into her creative writing class, NyRee uses this non-traditional way to encourage her students to write to heal. Growing up in the west end of Louisville, NyRee experienced many of the same challenges that many students in Kentucky are faced with today and believes teachers can help students find their purpose.  

Follow in NyRee’s footsteps of using hip hop and other storytelling mediums for impact with one of National Geographic Education’s online courses such as Storytelling for Impact in Your Classroom: Photography.

To take a deeper look into NyRee’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky where she and the Young Prodigies explore and take action around issues of justice, check out the #2892MilesToGo Louisville storymap: Finding Our Way.

Lead image taken by Silviu Chriac.

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