Sparking Engagement With Hip-Hop

From Michelle Obama’s rhymed appeal to high schoolers to attend college to Ellen DeGeneres’s recent spotlight on second-grade teacher Michael Bonner’s transformative use of rap in the classroom, the use of hip-hop in education seems to growing.

But using hip-hop as a tool for teaching and learning is not new. Hip-hop based education (HHBE) research started near the end of the 20th century, as scholars recognized that hip-hop could, in the words of Roderic Land and David Stovall, “engage youth in social discourse, which fosters critical thinking and academic and media literacy.”

As a library media specialist, I started using HHBE in my instructional practice in 2004 to connect my students’ interests and culture to curriculum content. I’ve used Tupac’s autobiographical poem “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” to teach students how to analyze poetry, and the young-adult novel Hip-Hop High School was added to our summer reading list to help students increase their SAT vocabulary. The combination of SAT words, hip-hop, and pop culture references made this novel the most-requested and most-read book for summer reading. And I’ve used Alicia Keys’s spoken word piece “P.O.W. (Prisoner of Words)” to spark students’ creative writing and help them gain an appreciation for the power of words.


Dangerous Minds
Dangerous Minds – a 1995 Film

Why is teaching with hip-hop effective? It’s all about creating meaningful connections for students. Hip-hop pedagogy is a “way of authentically and practically incorporating the creative elements of hip-hop into teaching, and inviting students to have a connection with the content while meeting them on their cultural turf by teaching to, and through, their realities and experiences.” When a curriculum does not reflect the culture, interests, and realities of youths, they lose interest in learning and school. This disengagement often contributes to poor grades, behavior issues, and students dropping out of school. Active engagement is a catalyst for student achievement.

Hip-hop based education is a culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) that fosters student engagement and student achievement. Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the term culturally relevant pedagogy in 1995. A pedagogical best practice, CRP “not only addresses student achievement but also helps students accept and affirm their cultural identities.”


Free Your Mind

I have heard of educators using hip-hop as a medium through which to embark on cross-curricular discussions. For example, one teacher used it in their library during Women’s History Month, we challenged students to respond to the essential question: Does gender play a role in leadership? This was an evidence-based lesson created to demonstrate how teacher and library media specialist co-teaching and collaboration with hip-hop could promote student success. This teacher introduced the lesson with a clip from Flocabulary that highlighted International Women’s Day. Students in Spanish 4 shared their original poems and multimedia presentations (composed and spoken in Spanish) about the future women of America. Students also examined and conducted a comparative analysis of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First.”

This teacher even used hip-hop to create math projects that connect students to real-world questions and challenges.

Another example that can be used in the math classroom is a lesson on Hip-Hop Math: Conquering Word Problems. In this lesson, students have to solve a scenario-based math problem about Kendrick Lamar. They looked for patterns in Lamar’s Twitter retweets to identify a pattern of growth and determine the increase in his Twitter fan base. Afterward, students created a multimedia explanation using SWAY to justify their response.

Being an ethical and responsible digital citizen is also a unit that can be adapted to different classroom environments. PBS LearningMedia has a lesson on hip-hop sampling which can be used to develop students’ understanding of why we need to respect the intellectual property of others and how to do that. In these lessons, students defined the idea, purpose, and impact of copyright, fair use, and plagiarism. They also honed their understanding of how to ethically use information. Discussion of hip-hop sampling not only allows for conversations about digital literacy but also serves as a springboard to engage students in creative writing and producing digital media. 

HHBE can be infused in all content areas and grade levels. Whether you’re new to using HHBE in your instruction or looking for some new ideas, remember that it’s less about using hip-hop culture to teach, and more about using HHBE as a culturally relevant pedagogy to foster student engagement and promote student success.


Adapted from

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