opinion

Democratizing Education Through Student Voice and Hip Hop

By
Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools

Earlier this fall, Flocabulary partnered with Atlanta Public Schools on a writing contest called Hip Hop History. The challenge posed to students was simple: Write a rap song about a historical figure who inspires you. The results were remarkable.

Students from grades 1-12 participated in the contest, and the historical figures ranged from George Washington Carver to Michelle Obama. One ninth-grader named Asmara decided to write about Trayvon Martin:

They call it looking suspicious; We call it being Black and alive.
They call it keeping criminals off the streets; We call it genocide.
Trayvon: your death had no meaning in the government's eyes.
They killed you unjustly and had it advertised.

The superintendent’s office evaluated submissions from across the district and invited several groups of students to perform their work at the annual State of the District address. The students performed proudly in front of more than a thousand teachers, parents and guests, bringing the crowd to its feet and stealing the show. When asked to choose a winner from the student groups, the audience refused. The consensus was that all of the students were winners that day.

So, what did this contest have to do with democratization? At its surface, the contest was aimed at fairly traditional learning outcomes. Once students chose a subject, they used standards-based academic skills like independent research, critical thinking and non-fiction reading. The use of songwriting also allowed students to be creative and encouraged them to work collaboratively, two important 21st-century skills that are increasingly important in the workplace, yet hard to teach in the classroom.

But the contest went far beyond standards and skills. It also elevated student voice. By giving students a chance to take ownership of the curriculum and content, we allow them to shape what is being covered and how it’s being taught. (Researchers have taken notice of this too: A literature review by the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University concluded that student motivation and academic achievement increase when students’ interests and goals are reflected in the classroom.)

Courtesy of Atlanta Public Schools

Lessons that elevate student voice also allow diverse identities and cultural perspectives to break through the curriculum—a curriculum that has been covered in the permafrost of a limited cultural perspective for far too long. This perspective can be biased and sometimes just plain wrong. As recently as 2015, it was discovered that a major geography textbook, published by McGraw-Hill Education and adopted by the Texas Board of Education, referred to slaves as "workers" in a chapter on global immigration. The book was rolled out to thousands of high school students, one of whom caught the error himself, and wasn’t updated with a correction until a parent demanded it. How would a textbook cover Trayvon Martin?

The idea of elevating student voice is becoming a major focus area—right alongside traditional K-12 themes like core curriculum, assessment and graduation rates—among superintendents and chief academic officers. The willingness of Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to showcase the writing contest on her district’s biggest stage is one example. But bringing activities that elevate student voice into more classrooms will mean designing new tools to support teachers and creating new frameworks to connect the activities to core standards and skills.

Lessons that showcase student voice bring new vantage points and ultimately democratize education, particularly for students whose cultural perspectives have been suppressed or marginalized. In our current social climate, diverse voices and perspectives are more important than ever. We can’t rely on gatekeepers to tell the whole story.

The Hip-Hop History contest worked because it sat at the intersection where popular culture and academic content meet—a pedagogical sweet spot where authentic engagement can be a springboard into skills and standards. The Atlanta students showed remarkable depth of knowledge, but it was their confidence and ownership of the content that shined through. For those of us in the audience that day, one thing was clear: While the students rapped about history, they were also making some of their own.

See the Atlanta students in action in this video.

Alex Rappaport (@alexrappaport) is the co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary

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