Schooling Hip-Hop: A Review

As part of my ongoing effort to read everything about hip-hop education, I recently finished Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum, edited by Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer. I’ve read individual chapters before, but this was the first time I sat down to read the book cover to cover. The book, edited by two of hip-hop education’s premier scholars, is a sort of clarion call to teachers and researchers, demanding a deeper and more critical engagement with hip-hop culture in educational spaces. I came away from my reading energized and excited for the future of the field.

Published in 2013, Schooling Hip-Hop marks an important shift in what the editors call hip-hop based education (HHBE), one that began some years before the book’s publication and has continued to accelerate. In the early years, efforts to integrate hip-hop into school curricula focused mainly on the analysis of rap lyrics in English language arts classrooms. Educators began using hip-hop lyrics as school texts in order to make the teaching of traditional topics more culturally relevant to young people, and to develop critical literacy skills. Given the poetics of rap, and the many sociopolitical issues raised by rappers, this was perhaps the most natural place to start. However, over the years educators and scholars have pushed deeper, exploring how the underlying norms, worldviews, and “aesthetic forms” of hip-hop culture can challenge us to rethink how education works, not only for youth involved in hip-hip culture but for all young people. This is what Petchauer (2015) has recently dubbed the second wave of hip-hop education.

Chapter one, by Christopher Emdin, is instructive in terms of what it means to use hip-hop aesthetic forms in the classroom. Emdin is a science educator, and his “reality pedagogy” draws direct links between the communicative practices of scientists and hip-hoppers. For example, battling, the foundational process of competitive hip-hop performance, shares much in common with quality scientific debate. “In hip-hop,” Emdin writes, “exchanges among rappers that support argumentation, active debate, complex thinking, and deep questioning are the norm.” He expands on this idea by suggesting that the hip-hop cypher — in which participants stand in a circle and take turns performing and supporting one another in friendly competition — can be used as a model for rethinking the science classroom. For example, a science classroom based on the cypher might gather students and teacher in a circle and allow for multiple forms of simultaneous participation (e.g. research, assignments, lab work, etc).

Chapters two through four, all focused on higher education, demonstrate the use of a variety of other hip-hop aesthetic forms in the classroom. Emery Petchauer analyzes a series of assignments he gave in an urban teacher development course, based on the hip-hop aesthetics of kinetic consumption (the fact that “hip-hop is meant to be felt and not just seen and/or heard”) and autonomy/distance (resistance of compartmentalization and binaries). Petchauer offers the most rigorous and self-critical analysis of his own teaching that I have seen in HHBE. He analyzes the ways that the exercises fell short, and concludes that hip-hop education is not automatically relevant to African American students. At the same time, the exercises he describes drew only minimally on hip-hop aesthetics. For example, for “kinetic consumption” he used a discussion prompt asking which aspects of the classroom text the students “felt.” As a theater educator, I know that there are much deeper ways of engaging students in kinetic learning, some of which may have had more profound outcomes than Petchauer finds.

In chapter three, James Braxton Peterson recounts his many years of teaching college-level writing through hip-hop. Having taught his first HHBE course in 1997, Peterson is a trailblazer in the field. What makes this chapter  intriguing is that Peterson’s personal trajectory mirrors that of the field as a whole. His earliest attempt at combining hip-hop and composition used hip-hop simply as an object of study. Over the years, however, he has come to see how hip-hop habits, sensibilities, and perspectives can inform and strengthen composition pedagogy. He draws clear parallels between the goals of composition teachers (e.g. revising, quoting, brainstorming) and the practices of hip-hoppers (e.g. remixing, cutting, freestyling). He convincingly argues that exploring the second can simultaneously teach the first. More broadly, he posits knowledge, consciousness, search/discover, and participation as central aspects of hip-hop culture that can be translated into the classroom, though he does what this looks like in depth.

Chapter four rounds out the first half of the book. Joycelyn Wilson, founding director of Hip-Hop 2020, describes the pedagogical framework for her hip-hop-based leadership course, Hip-Hop: The Black Aesthetic. Wilson’s course is designed to develop what she calls “authentic hip-hop leadership” or “leadership that keeps it real” In doing so, she draws on hip-hop concepts of realness and authenticity, as well as Afrocentric education models that stress self- and community-awareness. Her ideas of leadership share much in common with the concept of cultural leadership, which I’ve explored previously at this site.

The second half of Schooling Hip-Hop consists of four chapters that challenge HHBE research to be more diverse in focus, and more critical of its own practice. Most research on HHBE has been written by teacher-researchers studying their own classrooms. These researchers are generally hip-hop cultural insiders working with low-income urban students of color in high schools. However, as Irby and Hall show in Chapter five, this does not adequately represent the full diversity of educators who are interested in, or trying to use, hip-hop in their classrooms. Based on a survey of pre-service teachers who attended a hip-hop education training, the authors argue that the new face of HHBE may be “suburban certified primary school teachers with more than 10 years of experience who are likely to work in either a suburban school with a majority White student populariont or in a nontraditional urban school (private or charter) that serves a majority of students of color.” This reality suggests the need for new approaches to HHBE practice and research, and attention to the additional possibilities and issues that arise when such teachers take hip-hop into their schools.

As is often true when an educational approach is in the process of gaining legitimacy, hip-hop education research has been dominated by celebratory accounts of the power and potential of hip-hop in the curriculum. The final three chapters in Schooling Hip-Hop challenge this trend by offering more critical accounts of the difficulties and contradictions of HHBE. Chapter six, by Low, Tan, and Celemencki, explores the many faces of authenticity in hip-hop culture. The authors demonstrate how the discourse of “keeping it real” in hip-hop can mean many things: heterosexual masculinity, blackness, neighborhood, being true to yourself, underground, etc. In their teaching experience, the perceived authenticity of hip-hop education helped to connect youth to the curriculum, but sometimes it also got in the way of pedagogical goals. For example, the discourse of “hard” heterosexual masculinity constrained the roles young women could play in the classroom.

Chapter seven, by Derek Pardue, offers a peek into Pardue’s work with the Hip Hop House in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The only chapter to look at community-based education (and the only one outside of North America), chapter 6 briefly explores some of the possibilities and tensions that arise when hip-hop education gains governmental support as part of a nation-wide cultural strategy. In his narrative, new money comes with new problems, and debates are opened up at the national level about whether hip-hop is an important part of Brazil’s culture. Meanwhile, in chapter eight, David Stovall — a social justice educator and scholar in Chicago — takes an introspective look at his own teaching. He describes a unit in which hip-hop history and culture were used as a starting point for a critical analysis of gentrification and urban renewal. Like many hip-hop educators, Stovall is a cultural insider to hip-hop (and a Chicago native). But, he explains, that does not mean that he and his students understand hip-hop in the same way. He explains how young people’s experiences of urban life differ in important ways from those of his generation, arguing that such disconnects are important spaces for dialogue and mutual learning. “If our concern is liberation, we cannot hold on to the sentiment of ‘things were better in my day.’ Instead, we must understand the times as different and should embrace the idea that the new understandings of young people have the potential to serve as sites for liberation.”

As with many edited scholarly volumes, the individual chapters in Schooling Hip-Hop are unlikely to make a splash on their own. Most of these authors have written more seminal and more extended pieces about their work elsewhere. However, by combining these eight chapters into one volume, Hill and Petchauer are able to build up some real momentum for the changes they want to see in the field, and create a sense of possibility for the future.

School Closure Infographic

Here is an excellent infographic from the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign on the vicious cycle of school closure. School closure is being touted as a solution to failing schools, but functions as an attack on public education and low-income communities of color, maintaining a cycle of school failure. Communities are organizing across the country to stop it — calling for improvement rather than closure.

School Closure

Education for Liberation through Art and Culture

I’m excited to announce an open, national conference call on education for liberation through art and culture, which I am working on with the Arts & Democracy Project. We will have some excellent speakers from across the country. Info is below. Join us if you can on Thursday, February 6 at 3PM EST, 12PM PST. CLICK HERE TO RSVP AND GET CALL-IN INFO.

Education for Liberation through Art and Culture.

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
–    Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Amid the clamor of standardized tests, school privatization, and punitive accountability, we can lose sight of one of the most enduring purposes of education: freedom. Education for liberation is about understanding and addressing oppression in all its forms. It is a creative process, rooted in an appreciation of the rich cultural wealth of marginalized communities. It involves collaboratively reimagining our relationship with the world through dialogue and action.

Some of the most innovative forms of liberatory education are embedded in visual arts, literature, history, music, theater, and other artistic and cultural traditions. But as the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona makes clear, the right to liberatory education is something that must continually be fought for.

This conference call brings together representatives of three groups committed to supporting liberatory educational practices through engagement with culture and the arts. They will explore the possibilities and challenges of practicing – and fighting for – culturally relevant, creative, liberating educational opportunities for young people.

Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) is a community-based organization whose mission is to build a progressive and sustainable Long Beach community that works for gender, racial and economic justice led by Southeast Asian young women.
Save Ethnic Studies / Xican@ Institute for Teaching & Organizing in Arizona is an organized effort of social justice educators to challenge racist laws banning Mexican American and Ethnic studies programs in Tucson Unified School District, and across the state.
Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past, History, Organizing, and Power) is a Boston-based organization that trains young artists as cultural organizers who can address pressing social justice issues in their communities.

Portrait of a Cultural Organizer

I am excited to share with you an article I wrote, which just came out in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. It is a biographical portrait of Mariama White-Hammond, the Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP. The piece traces her development as an artist and activist, and looks at the way these two trajectories intersect in moments of synergy and tension. In addition to the writing, the piece includes a few of my comics to help bring Mariama to life. Click on the link below for a PDF of the article.

The Beauty of Transformation: Becoming a Cultural Organizer (PDF)

I want to thank the excellent editors of this special issue of JCT, Erica Meiners and Therese Quinn, and of course Mariama. Here’s a little taste.



Comics-Based Research

Last week I was in San Francisco for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference. Among other things, I was presenting a paper on Comics-Based Research, the use of comic-book style art and storytelling in educational research. When I got there, I found an entire panel presentation on the topic! For the past five years I have been exploring how to use comic-book style art in my research on cultural organizing, but until last week I had never met someone else doing the same — and I came away both awed and excited by what I saw.


A Page from Nick Sousanis’s Dissertation

One member of the panel was Nick Sousanis, a doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College. He is currently doing his dissertation entirely in comics form. His complex black-and-white layouts are stunning, and he uses the comic form to concretize big, abstract ideas about visual/verbal knowledge and how comics work. You can see pages from his dissertation on his website:

Another panel member was famous activist, educator, and author Bill Ayers. He was there to speak about the process of turning his book To Teach into a graphic novel with the help of artist Ryan Alexander Tanner. He spoke eloquently about how his thinking shifted through the process — from thinking they were merely going to illustrate his writing, to understanding that they had to write an entirely new book using this unique form. You can read my review of the resulting collaboration here: To Teach: The Journey in Comics


From Jones & Woglom’s TC Record article

The third panelist was James Woglom, a comic artist who has been working with researcher Stephanie Jones to translate her research on feminist pedagogy into comic form. The two have developed an intriguing collaborative system of analysis and writing, and have published in Teachers College Record and the Harvard Educational Review.

And chairing the panel was Marcus Weaver-Hightower, a professor at the University of North Dakota whose research, in comic form, explores the incredibly difficult topic of losing a child at birth, with a focus on the experience of fathers. His work has recently been featured in the new book Qualitative Research: The Essential Guide to Research and Practice.

What struck me, as I listened to these writer/artists was the wide variety of approaches they brought to the table. Some wrote and drew alone, some struggled through the difficulties of collaboration. Some spoke of their work in terms of narrative, others in terms of the arts. They came with different levels of knowledge about comics. But it meshed better than many panels I have seen because of the obvious passion for the form, and the wide possibilities in using comics in research and writing in the field of education.

As soon as I got home I was inspired to get back to drawing!

Book Review: Hip Hop Genius

by Sam Seidel
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011. 156 pp. $22.95 (hardcover).

imagesIt’s the ingenuity that led youth in the South Bronx to turn electricity from streetlights and discarded pieces of linoleum into a party. It’s the something-from-nothing attitude that led young musicians to transform record players into instruments and to combine snatches of disco, funk, rock, and blues into the new American music. It is hip-hop genius, and, according to Sam Seidel, it just might be the antidote for what ails our public schools.

In Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education, educator and author Sam Seidel profiles the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota, an innovative charter school built around a student-run, for-profit record label where young people hone their artistic and leadership skills while learning about technology, business, collaboration, and more. The school works with youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of traditional schools—and even some alternative programs—by offering a remix of established alternative education models and its own unique contributions.

Continue Reading…

New Book: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Just last week, Senator Dick Durbin oversaw a congressional hearing on disrupting what many are now calling the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” — a web of systems that are pushing low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities out of the public schools and into the criminal justice system. This historic move by Durbin is only the most recent result of years of grassroots organizing and advocacy, and a positive sign that there is political will to do something about this disturbing trend. But what will it take to disrupt this pipeline?

disrupting-school-to-prison_223Some possible answers can be found in a new book, which I am personally very proud to announce: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline from the Harvard Educational Review. Four colleagues and I have been working for the past year editing this volume, which brings together the voices of scholars, educators, students, lawyers, funders, and incarcerated individuals. With a wide range of perspectives, these fabulous authors illuminate the multiple faces of the pipeline and offer real-world, workable solutions. To get a peek inside the book CLICK HERE.

Part one of the book starts in the education system, looking at the way that discipline policies, racism, and other structural forces are creating “prison-like schools” and failing our students. But we are also introduced to alternatives — for example, a round table of youth, educators, and community members describe their work instituting alternative disciplinary policies under the rubric of restorative justice. Part two follows those who have been pushed out of traditional schools into the realm of alternative schools, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Here we see how, in these carceral spaces, education becomes both a mechanism of control and a means of liberation. Finally, part three takes a step back to ask what kind of broad efforts might address the pipeline on a national scale — including grassroots organizing and transformative justice.

In between longer essays and scholarly articles are the voices of those most affected by the pipeline — public school students and incarcerated youth and adults. These poems and short essays offer some of the most troubling and the most empowering moments in the book.

I have had an amazing time working with many of these authors, and I am thrilled the book is out. Please spread the word — a movement to end the pipeline is growing, so join in.

Authors: Starcia Ague, Kathy Boudin, Kathleen B. Boundy, Joseph Cambone, Seth G. Cooper, Christopher Dankovich, Bobby Dean Evans, Jr., Jane Hereth, Mariame Kaba, Joanne Karger, Paul Kuttner, Daniel J. Losen, Kavitha Mediratta, Erica R. Meiners, Pedro A. Noguera, Douglas W. Price, Elizabeth A. Reid, David H. Rose, Derek R. Russel, Michael Satterfield, Peter Sipe, Sabina E. Vaught, Alejandro G. Vera, Lewis Wallace, and Robert Wilson.

Editors: Sofía Bahena, North Cooc, Rachel Currie-Rubin, Paul Kuttner, and Monica Ng


The Purpose of Schooling: Imagination and Creativity

We need a radical rethinking of the purpose of schooling.

It’s the longest-running debate in US education: What should be the purpose of school? To train a skilled workforce? To sort people and reward the “smartest”? To help individuals reach their goals? To socialize people into “American culture”? To build a foundation for democracy? The answer has long been “all of the above” — although at different times in our history one or another has taken prominence.

It doesn’t take more than a glance at the current presidential race to recognize that these days the economic purpose of school is front and center. Proponents of this perspective argue that improving education will boost the US economy. While this may in fact be an appealing outcome, it is a partial and limited vision of what schooling can and should be. With our rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected society, and so many dire social, political, and environmental issues calling for solutions, we need a more robust and holistic understanding of what schools are for.

I propose the following framework: The purpose of schools should be to develop imagination and creativity.

When I say imagination, I am not talking simply about fantasy or play, though these are important pieces of the puzzle. As Merriam-Webster puts it, imagination is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” It’s about empathy: imagining how it might feel to be someone else in another body, another situation, another culture. It’s about personal achievement: imagining futures for yourself and how you might reach them. It’s about resilience: imagining what obstacles you might face, and how you might leap them. And it’s about creating change: imagining how your life, your community, or your world might be better.

Importantly, imagination must be built on a foundation of understanding. One cannot imagine how the world might be if one does not understand how the world is. And nothing fuels imagination like learning about parts of the world beyond our everyday experience. This might mean learning about a culture on the other side of the world that works differently than the one we know; or it might mean learning about atoms and quarks, things that we all experience but are too small to see. So developing imagination encompasses traditional learning areas such as history, anthropology, physics, etc. But these topics are taught in the service of developing an historical, social, scientific imagination rather than as separate pieces of information devoid of context.

The related but distinct notion of creativity has long been connected with specific fields such as art, and with individual geniuses. But creativity can take place in any arena, and on many different scales. When I say a school’s purpose is to develop “creativity,” I mean very simply the ability to create. To create a piece of technology from its component parts. To create a theory about the world from pieces of existing theories and your own experiences. To create community. To create new ways of being with one another. And yes — to create art.

Understood in this way, creativity relies on many “basic skills” that we expect our schools to teach. If we want to develop creativity across multiple fields (and we do) students need to be literate in written languages, mathematics, visual languages, computers, health, and more. To focus on creativity is not to put aside these skills for unbounded play time, but to situate these skills in real, creative applications. And it definitely means focusing on the kind of “higher-order thinking” that we say we want from schools, but that are rarely prioritized in public education.

Creativity is often understood as a set of individual skills and dispositions that lead someone to think “out of the box.” As such, it has been increasingly recognized as a “21st century skill” that can help drive innovation (and thus the economy). But I am taking a broader view of creativity not only as an individual characteristic, but as a system. As some theorists have shown, creativity takes place not just within a person but in a larger system that includes colleagues, audiences, the history of the field, and more. So developing creativity is also about developing the ability to understand what has come before you, to connect and collaborate with others, and to see yourself within a larger context.

What this would mean for schools
As I hope I’ve made clear, this framework does not throw out everything that we have been doing in schools. Students still need to learn about science and reading and math. It doesn’t even involve inventing new pedagogies — the tools we need are out there, even if not in the mainstream. But it does call on us to shift our thinking in some fundamental ways.

Perhaps most obviously (particularly for this blog), this framework would mean a much more integral role for the arts in schools. While some outcomes of arts education are hotly contested, most people recognize that they are powerful tools for encouraging imagination and creativity. Art should not be only a separate elective class but a set of practices integrated across disciplines.

This framework also pushes us away from the common view that schools are filling students up with something they are lacking (a deficit view). Instead we see our goal as supporting the growth of something that is already there. After all, we know that all children have the capacity for amazing displays of imagination and creativity. What they need is to have this ability nurtured, supported, and broadened.

This framework also suggests the need for an education that involves making and doing real things. Instead of only learning facts and writing papers, students should be guided through the process of understanding, imagining, and creating. Project-based learning is an excellent example of a pedagogy that takes this seriously, engaging students in projects that draw on multiple skills and disciplines, require collaboration, and address real-world issues.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this kind of focus has the potential to make schools much more fun and engaging for students — no small feat.

Transformative teaching that encourages imagination and creativity is happening right now, though not always in schools. It must necessarily look different across schools based on the context — the particular students, families, communities, and teachers involved. But I argue that this overarching framework could help to realign our thinking towards what is truly important — and perhaps help us, collectively, improve our ability to imagine a better world and begin to work towards it.



This post was inspired by Kay Merseth, who has the students in her school reform course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education all write papers on what the purpose of schooling is — an important and overlooked exercise. Here is my humble attempt. Thanks Professor Merseth.

Book Review: To Teach: The Journey, In Comics

In the spirit of some of the comics-related posts I’ve been doing, I wanted to share a book review I wrote for the Harvard Educational Review on a fabulous graphic novel about teaching, by educator and activist Bill Ayers.

To Teach: The Journey, In Comics
by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner
New York: Teachers College Press, 2010. 128 pp. $15.95

“Teaching at its best is not a matter of technique—it is primarily an act of love.”
– William Ayers

If I am left with only one lingering feeling from reading To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, it is love. This book exudes love: love for the profession of teaching and the brave, creative souls who engage in it; love for the children and youth who inspire, challenge, and teach the teacher; and even, in the end, love for the educational bureaucrats who are lampooned at various points in the book. William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner obviously adore teaching in all its messiness, and that adoration is infectious.

This book is a graphic novel adaptation of William Ayers’s classic work To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, first published in 1993. The original text has been brought to life through striking black-and-white cartoons from artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner. As in the original, the graphic novel is made up of eight chapters, each delving into a different aspect of teaching. The ideas are grounded in Ayers’s time as a kindergarten teacher, his experiences as a parent, and the work of other innovative educators. To Teach is a book about what is possible; the educators featured are real people making real magic in real classrooms.

Ayers and Alexander-Tanner offer an impassioned plea for sloughing off the “myths” of teaching, such as the idea that children are worse than they were in the past or that a teacher’s work is to “save” students…Click HERE to read the full review