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How one educator brings hip-hop to the classroom


This is the story of a new movement in American education; a story about a new way of thinking about how some students learn, and how to get them to love school.

And it is a story about one person in this movement who’s trying to make a difference.

This story starts in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s, where a kid named Bettina Love was growing up. She grew up knowing her town had been home to some of the world’s greatest companies: Xerox, Kodak, Bausch and Lomb. Then the economy changed.

"The companies left," Love says now. "And this was the same time drugs were big in urban communities, and so.... "

And so she saw all these things happening around her.

 "And I was going to my school every day, and no one was talking about what was happening in my community," Love says. "No one was talking about the crime. No one was talking about the loss of jobs. No one was talking about the crumbling education system. The only folks … the only place I had to understand what was going on was hip-hop."

"No one was talking about the crime. No one was talking about the loss of jobs. No one was talking about the crumbling education system. The only folks ... the only place I had to understand what was going on was hip-hop."

 Hip-hop. At first, Love says she got hooked on rap.

" ... and Nas, Jay Z, Lauren Hill, KRS One, Poor Righteous Teachers," she says. "These were the individuals who were actually informing me about what was going on, telling me about my history and where I was from. And I just gravitated toward that."

Bettina Love.

When Bettina Love grew up, and became an educator herself, she remembered this. She got a job at a school in South Florida that was struggling. It had an F rating from the state. And she says it was a place where she was allowed to try anything to help kids. So she brought hip-hop to the classroom.

"And so I was really at that stage of like, ‘Okay, you don’t want to write a paper, fine, write a rap. You don’t want to do that particular type of art project, fine, do graffiti. Do a mural,'" Love says. "And so it was really those basic ideas around hip-hop, but they became very powerful for kids to see themselves in a different light."

And it worked.

"Because you saw kids who, for years, have been told that they can’t learn, start to learn, start to enjoy school," she says. "I remember I knew something was happening when I would pull up, and there would be like 7 or 10 kids just waiting for me to come to school. I was like, ‘Oh, this is working.’”

This is how Bettina Love, now a professor at the University of Georgia, became one of the many educators now involved in the hip-hop education movement.

And before we go further, we have to define what hip-hop is, because there are some misconceptions.  

"I think because many people only know one element of hip-hop, and that’s rap," Love says.

Hip-hop culture has at least five elements, though some people argue for more. The main five Love talks about are  MCing, DJing, graffiti, B-Boy or B-girl dance – think break-dancing – and the fifth element: Knowledge.  

And hip-hop education isn’t even just about teaching those elements. Love says it’s about completely re-envisioning the classroom environment, so that movement, music, the free flow of ideas all become part of learning. And this part isn’t at all new. Love says it draws on ideas of education from before formal education systems were invented.

"And so how did those people in indigenous cultures learn?" she asks. "They learned through storytelling. They learned through music. They learned through the beat. And how can we then take those things, that if we understand individuals have a cultural DNA and the ways in which they learn pull on their culture, then hip-hop becomes a very powerful form to understand how kids learn – particularly kids from the African diaspora."

Love uses this approach in a once-a-week class at a charter school in Atlanta. In January, she'll start a fellowship at Harvardto develop a new, contemporary civics curriculum using the principles of hip-hop education.  

I asked Love why I don’t see more teachers and more schools using hip-hop education. She said, because this is a movement, it should be slow, it should be local, and it should grow organically. It should come from the bottom, and work its way up. That, she says, is hip-hop.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.