Slam School: Learning through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom

Slam School: Learning through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom

Slam School: Learning through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom

Slam School: Learning through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom


Mainstream rap's seductive blend of sexuality, violence, and bravado hardly seems the stuff of school curricula. And chances are good that the progressive and revolutionary "underground" hip-hop of artists such as The Roots or Mos Def is not on the playlists of most high-school students. That said, hip-hop culture remains a profound influence on contemporary urban youth culture and a growing number of teachers are developing strategies for integrating it into their classrooms. While most of these are hip-hop generation members who cannot imagine leaving the culture at the door, this book tells the story a white teacher who stepped outside his comfort zone into the rich and messy realm of student popular investments and abilities.

Slam School takes the reader into the heart of a poetry course in an urban high school to make the case for critical hip-hop pedagogies. Pairing rap music with its less controversial cousins, spoken word and slam poetry, this course honored and extended student interests. It also confronted the barriers of race, class, gender, and generation that can separate white teachers from classrooms of predominantly black and Latino students and students from each other.

Bronwen Low builds a surprising argument: the very reasons teachers might resist the introduction of hip-hop into the planned curriculum are what make hip-hop so pedagogically vital. Class discussions on topics such as what one can and cannot say in the school auditorium or who can use the N-word raised pressing and difficult questions about language, culture and identity. As she reveals, an innovative, student-centered pedagogy based on spoken word curriculum that is willing to tolerate conflict, as well as ambivalence, has the potential to air tensions and lead to new insights and understandings for both teachers and students.


I AM NOT WHAT YOU THINK OF AS HIP – HOP. I am a white, Canadian woman, who at the time of this study had recently moved to the United States to take up an academic position at a private research-intensive college. And neither is Tim. Also white, he is a high school language arts teacher, a haiku poet, runner, and committed bird-watcher who self-admittedly knew nothing about rap music. This disjunction helps explain his students’ surprise when Tim announced that the class would be studying hip-hop and spoken word culture in the last term of their senior year. Then he introduced me as the professor who would be coteaching the class. One student asked if he could borrow a tape-recorder, since “there’s a lot going on in the school teachers don’t know about,” a situation he was hoping to change. The “lot” he referred to is the hip-hop poetry, including individual and group (or cipher) improvised freestyling and rapping, which pervades the hallways of urban high schools across the United States but is rarely invited into classrooms. Which doesn’t mean that popular culture, and in this case hip-hop, isn’t already present in schools, shaping the identities of students and therefore how, what, and why they learn.

Tim teaches English, specializing in creative writing, in an urban arts magnet high school in a midsized city in the northeastern United States. In the fall of 2001, I was an assistant professor in a local university’s faculty of education. The university suffers from the elitist reputation problems of similar private institutions located in poor urban centers. I had been studying, in theory, the implications of spoken word and hip-hop culture for youth identities and language practices. I met Tim, and he asked me to help him develop and teach a curriculum grounded in hip-hop culture in two of his senior classes. He had been teaching English and creative writing in the city school district for more than twenty years and felt that his ignorance about . . .

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