Exploring Through Hip-Hop: A Win-Win for My Students and Me

Educator NyRee Clayton-Taylor wrote this post.

I’ve always loved hip-hop, but in the past I didn’t incorporate it into my teaching. Yet students kept coming into my classroom singing songs I also listened to, and I felt an instant connection with them. We started playing around: they might say a lyric, then I’d say the next one.

Because of my love of hip-hop, my principal asked me to teach a special-area class on writing. So I redesigned my classroom to look like a hip-hop video. I had a red carpet and graffiti on the walls. When students 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 my school ran a program about its namesake, Phyllis Wheatley, we were tasked with the collective project of writing and performing a rap about the esteemed poet. At that point, one student said, “I have a name for us – Young Prodigy’s.” Naming ourselves and creating our own hip-hop community was the catalyst for everything to come: performing at the Muhammad Ali Center and other places in our area 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 Real Young Prodigy’s have always been inspired by and written about what’s going on in the world, starting with researching and exploring the lives of Wheatley and Ali. After a while, they started asking their own questions and exploring them as inspiration for their songs. They asked, for example, why do we only learn about Black history during Black History Month? Even then, they said, all they learn about is Rosa Parks, Dr. 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 in which the students explore and write about topics in response to their own questions about their lived experiences, their environment, and current events happening around them. Recent topics of interest have included reparations, Breonna Taylor, and the CROWN Act.

Over time, we have let the Real Young Prodigy’s lead and have followed 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. Camp, with T.R.A.P. standing for Teaching Respect About the Planet. The camp merges hip-hop, environmental science, and geography to teach Black students about local environmental justice issues, like the changing of our urban landscape over time. We speak to community elders to understand what the land here looked like before the chemical plants arrived, and we research how practices such as redlining have affected the land and the experiences of people who live here.

When we spend time outdoors, we are guided by student 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,” which 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 of “Little Africa,” so I asked him to speak to the Young Prodigy’s in T.R.A.P. Camp. By passing down these oral histories, he deepened our understanding of how the experience of nature in our community has shifted over time. We explored the questions students had about why those changes have happened. By providing these opportunities to explore questions, our Young Prodigy’s 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’s Advice for Educators

  1. Serve as a guide.

My role as an educator is to serve as a guide and to set the context for students’ questions by giving them experiences from which 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 and eventually through engaging with our community about issues the Young Prodigy’s 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 Prodigy’s 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, 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 between 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 Prodigy’s were making to social studies, science, and even math. Going forward, we have a whole horizon to explore in these areas, with our collective passion for hip-hop at the core.

This post is a refreshed version of one originally published in July 2021.

You can follow in NyRee’s footsteps by learning how to guide your students in telling stories that inspire change. Learn how to incorporate various modes of storytelling into your teaching with National Geographic’s self-paced, on-demand Storytelling for Impact courses, developed in partnership with Adobe. Learn more about these and all of our courses here.

To engage, enlighten, and educate is the aim of NyRee Clayton-Taylor, who uses her creative writing class to explore the therapeutic effect of writing. By infusing the Kentucky Academic Standards and the elements of hip-hop, NyRee encourages 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 face today. She believes teachers can help students find their purpose.

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

Featured image by Pixdeluxe/Getty Images

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