Lessons from 'Thug Notes': Does Swearing Belong in the Classroom?

column | Language Arts

Lessons from 'Thug Notes': Does Swearing Belong in the Classroom?

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Mar 20, 2015

Lessons from 'Thug Notes': Does Swearing Belong in the Classroom?

Take a look below. Which of the following sentences would you rather read to get a good idea of how the Shakespearean play Macbeth begins?

SENTENCE 1: “The play begins with the brief appearance of a trio of witches and then moves to a military camp, where the Scottish King Duncan hears the news that his generals, Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated two separate invading armies.”

SENTENCE 2: “After making a b**** outta their enemies, the king’s fresh generals Macbeth and Banquo hit up three witches who start laying down some cold prophecy.”

That second quote is the first line from a video summary of Macbeth by “Thug Notes,” a YouTube series featuring Sparky Sweets Ph.D. explaining famous works of literature, from A Tale of Two Cities to The Color Purple. Thug Notes pushes buttons on what constitutes educational material, but if teachers like those in Tampa are any indication, educators may be using Thug Notes as a curriculum asset. Will it continue to spread?

In its first four weeks alone back in June of 2013, the show generated over 50,000 subscribers and nearly 800,000 views across the web. Now? The YouTube channel is up to more than 380,000 subscribers.

We caught up with Jacob Salamon, CEO of the Thug Notes production company Wisecrack, Inc., and got a quick word with the man himself--Greg Edwards, the actor and former teacher behind “Sparky Sweets, Ph.D”--to get the low-down on vernacular language in education and how they believe that these videos might change literature instruction as we know it.

EdSurge: Why did you create Thug Notes?

Salamon: Jared Bauer, my co-founder, said “I have this guy that I’ve grown up with who’s incredibly smart, and for all intents and purposes, he has a Ph.D. I’d love to figure out if we can take what he knows and make it educational... and use the vernacular of rapid hip-hop as a way of delivering more information that you can pack in anywhere else.”

The fundamental belief was that a kid would rather spend an hour searching for how to cheat online than an hour reading the book. It’s funny that all of these SparkNotes and CliffsNotes exist on the web, but don’t exist in video form at all.

Thug Notes originally started off as an idea and a joke, but the joke now is that there is no joke… We never really expected to enter this whole world of education; that wasn’t the initial intention. But we began to see that this is working in classrooms. Teachers are using it; students are using it. Millennials are falling in love with reading again.

Who is your intended audience? Are teachers and students watching these videos?

We get hundreds of notes every single week from teachers who say, “I’m using it in the classroom,” or “I delicately suggest to my students that there might be videos online they want to see.” Or even students, who will write in the comments, “Thank you, thank you! I had this assignment today for class and thank goodness you uploaded it!”

We do get requests all the time for cleaner versions from teachers. This is something we’re debating internally. One consideration is that we might make educational tools, like a work kit that is specifically made for them.

At least right now, there is a fair amount of swearing and adult material in these videos. Is there an argument to be made for these videos achieving something beyond what other means of education just can’t?

The fact that it’s fun to watch, that’s it’s edgy and like South Park….Thug Notes is the same type of thing, because it’s edgy, and kids want to watch it. And at the end, the joke is that we’ve just delivered them really great literary information and knowledge.

What’s really cool is that students are going to search for this stuff anyway. It’s like code switching--we’re using their sense of humor to make it work. It’s doing something that educational materials have never done before. No company would dare go there. The teachers who are using it are the ones who are edgy, or willing to bend the rules to do whatever it takes to get the attention of their students. It’s also being used in prisons and detention centers, and places where it’s reaching people in a different way.

So you bring reading into the limelight, but I’m thinking about complaints in relation to SparkNotes, that it dumbs down students because you aren’t reading the text. What’re your thoughts on that?

We made a conscious decision when we talked to investors (which include Allen DeBevoise of Machinima, Brett Hurt of Bazaarvoice, and Kevin Gould of Kombo Ventures) that we don’t have the resources to go deep enough and create a great 40-hour course. But again, the truth here is that kids are probably going to try and cheat anyway; might as well give them an entry point that makes it interesting.

But don’t these videos reinforce negative stereotypes? Over to Sparky Sweets, AKA comedian Greg Edwards, for a hot second. Greg, what’re your thoughts about stereotyping in these videos?

Edwards: This is a question I get from a lot of people. I just feel like race right now in this country is so tensed up. It’s like a pimple that’s been picked with so much.

If our show was “Greg with a Funny Voice Describing Books,” no one would watch it. At least with “Thug Notes,” we play with it. We’re flipping it a little bit--the hood black dude is smart and breaking down books for all kids. I feel like with all the black and racial tension going on, I could see people hating this. But on the other side, there’s a kid in the 6th grade, who lives in a rough neighborhood, who could really enjoy this as edutainment.

Salamon: We knew that sort of thing would happen. One of my very good friends, who is an English teacher, thought it was unconscionable…

The whole joke and intention of the show was “We’re going to make social satire.” We’re going to invert stereotypes on their head.

The whole theme we’re pressing on is to not judge a book by its cover. The idea was, your initial sensation is that you see a gangster who leverages those sorts of stereotypes, and even though race is an element of the show, you realize at the end that it’s not a racist show--it’s the complete opposite. In fact, if you make a judgement about this guy, within five minutes at the end of the video, you realize that Sparky Sweets has been able to succinctly to teach you about this material better than anyone on the web.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Leave us a comment below. Curious to check out more of the videos? Visit Thug Notes’ YouTube channel.

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