"A Language that Often isn’t Allowed in Class;" Learning through Conflict in the Hip Hop and Spoken Word Classroom with Bronwen E. Low

It began for Bronwen Low after she saw her first teen slam (or “Mock Poetry Olympics” as she likes to put it) in 1999 at the Peoples Poetry Gathering on the lower eastside of New York. Kids from all over the burroughs gathered to compete, to cheer each other on, and recite their own words. It changed Low’s view on youth and poetry completely and two years later she began collaborating with an English Language Arts teacher and a professional artist mentor to create a curriculum for educating youth through hip-hop history and slam poetry. These classes were designed to push conventions of traditional ELA teaching, to bend the rules of grammar and censorship, and offer a space for youth to learn about themselves and their peers through writing and performance.
As Low states: “My hope is that this book will interest both researchers, as there is cultural theory about hip-hop, contemporary society, gender and racial class politics, as well as teachers and poets, who might take more interest in the narrative stories of a classroom.”
I first read Low’s book: “Learning through Conflict in the Hip Hop and Spoken Word Classroom” after it’s release at Drawn & Quarterly (Montreal) in May 2011. Now I have the opportunity to question Low from the perspective of a spoken word artist and educator who works with youth in the spoken word classroom, but has never been trained as a school teacher.
LitLive: The book talks about different ways to look at voice? How would you define voice?
“I am quite critical of how voice can be used in a way that is untheorized: only one voice, true voice, false voice. Those concepts don’t take into account performativity of identity, voices evolve across time, different voices for different scenarios and different contexts. It de-politicizes the goal as being individual instead of collective. Slam honours youth experiences, gives them a place to voice aloud their thinking and feelings on things about the world around them and their place within it.”
LitLive: Within a slam curriculum did you use particular exercises to help students explore different voices?
“One exercise we did in the workshops was based around the “persona poem”. We asked students to take on a persona and explore those perspectives. One student took on the role of an Iraqi soldier, another wrote from the perspective of a dead-beat dad, and another from the voice of planet earth. This workshop allowed students a place for experimentation without feeling the need to expose everything within themselves.”
LitLive: The book discusses the difference between “Representin’ and Keepin’ it Real” as well as notions of a hip-hop “ego consciousness”. Is it appropriate to be narcissistic when you are beginning to write in order to find your authentic voice and express your experiences? By narcissism I mean looking at self, individual experience, and exaggerating, inflating or glorifying those experiences.
“I agree with you that writing almost always starts with the self. We are interested in putting into language our thoughts and experiences. What a slam poetry curriculum can do is allow students a space in a classroom to do that work publicly amongst colleagues and with their teacher, and to share things they might not normally. Most importantly, it gives them a chance to do so in a language that often isn’t allowed in class, one that is everyday rather than academic or schooled.
Our curriculum made a lot of links between spoken word traditions more generally, all the way through to hip-hop. Many of the students were African American and Latino, and almost everyone was either into hip-hop or even if they weren’t, it still shaped their experience. Everyone had a strong feeling or investment in hip-hop. Of course hip-hop, the self and self-promotion are all part of a very long tradition: the African American street vernacular poetic tradition around bragging rights. All of that crept into students slam poetry.
One of the pieces that I found really interesting, from interviews with students, was how often they would express surprise about each other. Students would say “I never knew they thought that about her/him[self].” This showed a great example of how sharing of self is actually much more about the collective, interpersonal growth and understanding.”
LitLive:You were talking about using a language that is particular to the students, not always grammatically correct. How do we find space that is open for expression without violating the school’s politics or the students’ politics? As educators how can we work around censorship?
“That became a really important theme for me, because as mentioned in the title, conflict is central to the book. Our classrooms were filled with debate, and one of those disagreements was language. In the Chapter “Tale of the talent night rap”, we discuss a student performance where one student’s act got cut short. According to the students the principle felt like cursing was inappropriate. That event spun off into many classroom conversations about language, audience and appropriateness. One thing often told by teachers, especially in the Montreal area, is that they tried to start a slam poetry event in their school, but language became too big a barrier. If the administration decides what isn’t tolerated in performance, students often feel they’re not offered a space for expression that is promised.
At one point we tried to see how students would rate rap track lyrics, sort of like movie critics. They didn’t agree with the process at all, they’d either rate things a zero or a ten. What ended up happening was much more of a negotiation between teacher and student. Not all curse words are forbidden. But we worked with the phrase: “Don’t cast your pearls among swine.” Every word is a precious piece of language. Occasionally the perfect word fits with the rhyme, tone, etc.
The teacher that I worked with had his own set of policies: classroom door is shut during workshops, with certain things being said in classroom that aren’t appropriate in the auditorium.
LitLive: So the first step is to inspire youth to want to express themselves, but the issue has come up: who is this work going to be presented to and how are youth “representin’” themselves or “keepin’ it real”?
I think you can have different standards of acceptability for what happens inside the class and what happens outside the class, in a conscious use of language. A key piece for learning is that these negotiations be accompanied by a discussion around audience, purpose, context.
To go back to the concept of “keepin’ it real”: out of the three classes that I worked with, one class in particular was so invested into a main stream hip-hop that their notion of “keepin’ it real” was pretty narrow. They all bought into a fairly gangster version of what it means to be young, black, urban and male. The important work in that classroom was the interrogation of those notions and interrogating language that comes along with that template of “realness.””
LitLive: There is a lot of coding that happens in the language that youth are using, which brings about a certain level of beauty and of hiding the real meaning. How did you work with coded language?
This is exactly what happened in “Tale of the Talent Night Rap” where the student had lyrics of his rap pre-approved by administration, but he glossed the definitions to make them completely misleading. We brought it into the classroom and another student retranslated it and re-glossed it. So it became all these layers of meanings and interpretations sitting on this one rap text. It was a great research artifact and pedagogical tool to discuss issues around why you’re saying what you’re saying in a particular context. We can say things in order to shock but that might close people down, or shut their ears. If you really want to educate the adults in the world around you, you have to think carefully about the language you are going to use to do that.”
LitLive: In thinking about hip-hop and spoken word expression, some say that you have to own the experience you are speaking of in order to be real about it. In owning those experiences, how do we also own the potential miscommunication and judgments others may have?
I like the notion of language as a responsibility. It is really powerful and brings with it responsibility. This can help students and teachers think carefully about the language choices they are making or restricting.
LitLive: What do you think are the biggest challenges that educators face when considering incorporating spoken word or slam curriculum into a classroom? Do you think it’s possible to create a completely integrated curriculum that benefits both educator and student?
One challenge for teachers is how to make it fit in to the curriculum. Most provinces have oral competencies in English Language Arts, which is very helpful. We placed a lot of emphasis on the written poem that would then be performed so you have the transmediation moving from text to orality. I think, though, the more substantive barrier is that teachers sense that they don’t know enough. The model of the teaching artist is the perfect solution. When working in New York, we worked with a teaching artist. We benefited greatly from all of her expertise, and she also benefited from working with a teacher with a more traditional writing background.
The book is very much about teacher learning and students learning. Not only does a teaching artist provide a huge support to the teacher but the teacher has to relinquish a certain amount of authority, which can be difficult especially in a climate around accountability and standards. Teachers can feel anxious about losing control and feel that students aren’t moving forwards towards meeting certain competencies. It’s important for the teacher to step outside of their comfort zone and enter into the role as facilitator and coach, rather than the one who knows.
LitLive: So, we’re looking at collaboration as a basis for effectively bringing this type of curriculum into a classroom?
Absolutely, collaboration with teaching artists and then also with students, in which students become people who know.
I think it can be done without teaching artists since that can be hard for funding. Teachers who are well intentioned and willing to educate themselves can tap into the many resources that are out there. Some of these resources, for example “Louder than a Bomb” documentary and
curriculum which gives ties to traditional studies of literature and ELA curriculum. [See link below.] Writing mentorship is a great asset, however.
LitLive: The book is based off of youth workshops in the U.S.A. What do you think the needs for Canadian schools are?
“It’s hard to talk about Canadian schools because it varies by city and province. An exciting potential for Quebec is to make slam bilingual, to have students and schools coming together to perform in both French and English. We can use slam as a space to explore our multilingual realities and all the beauty and challenges that brings to communication and expression. For some reason urban schools in Montreal (by urban, I mean: coming from lower social-economic neighborhoods, often high rates of immigrant or refugee students) can look similar across national borders. One of the things I like about slam is that students can make a connection to it whether they’re urban or not. Slam is an open enough genre, that it’s not just hip-hop emcee work. Looking at the national spoken word world, you can see teams with different identities and styles that show range of work within performance poetry.”
LitLive: How did you work with students of varying literacy levels to get ideas on the page when the very notion of writing can be such a barrier to begin with?
“It is a real problem, especially for many of the students who connect most powerfully to slam. We placed a lot of importance on written and spoken, actually crafting what you are going to say. Unlike freestyle, slam is carefully written in advance. In the moment of performance, the word is spoken. Prior to that you can emphasize the craft of writing, but make craft more pleasing and interesting for students who are more challenged by writing by showing how it gets more embodied in performance.
One of the most important aspects of the work is making explicit the codes and conventions that structure these different genres, whether they’re spoken, written or in video. We do this by giving students a sense of how speech and writing are different, and not that one is better than the other.”
LitLive: In the book you emphasize how important it is not to simply glorify successes, but to consider conflicts as seeds for growth. How can we, as spoken word mentors who aren’t trained as teachers, look at these conflicts as openings?
“For one, people in the educational community at large often feel they need to share victory narratives. This can make people who don’t experience life in the classroom that way feel like they’re doing something wrong. This doesn’t always help us move forward. Things that didn’t work often didn’t work for surprising reasons and we learned a great deal from why they didn’t work. One thing that was quite unexpected was how much conflict and tension there was between students. Hip-hop opened up a whole new realm of discussions.
In classrooms there is often this idea that conflict is bad for learning. If students are disagreeing about something, their emotions will be engaged and they won’t be able to be rational clear thinkers. It seemed to me that those moments prompted the most growth. Even if students didn’t voice it in the moment, over the course of the term they’d describe how thinking had shifted and minds opened to new ideas.
From this, I started looking at literature on conflict and civic participation, where conflict is seen as an impediment to deliberation. Katherine Walsh [in Talking About Race (Universty of Chicago Press)]studied race circles in the U.S. where community members from different ethnic backgrounds would discuss important topics. Facilitators would lose control. In moments when things got heated, participants seemed to be more honest. This helped map out the scale of a problem by showing different positions that you could take on it. This, in and of itself, seemed very pedagogic. If we all have a greater sense of how people are feeling and thinking about an issue, that is a powerful educational moment.”
LitLive: How did you integrate these dialogues and varying views into writing assignments?
“Often the teacher would say: “There has been a lot covered today. Now I want you to go away, think about it, and write in relation to the following prompt…” There was always an emphasis on stepping back, revisiting, rethinking and then writing. An example from one of our conversations was the prompt: “When I hear the word bitch, I think…”
A key part of being a teacher is revising what you are teaching. You have to continually respond to group needs and be prepared to deal with the fact that nobody might respond. What might work for one class, might not work for next. It’s important to improvise. It’s always beneficial to have a good background of reference material.
The following is a list of references that Low recommends to educators:
References and relevant resources:
ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. In Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman (Eds.), New York: Henry Holt.
Fisher, Maisha. 2007. Writing in rhythm: Spoken word poetry in urban classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hall, Marcella Runell. 2009. Hip Hop education resources. Equity and Excellence in Education 42(1), 86-94.
Hall, Marcella Runell and Diaz, M. 2007. The hip hop education guidebook: Volume 1. New York: Hip Hop Association.
Hill, Marc Lamont. 2009. Beats, rhymes, and classroom life: Hip-hop pedagogy and the politics of identity. New York: Teachers College Press.
Low, Bronwen. 2006. Poetry on MTV?: Slam and poetics of the popular. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 22(4): 97<->111.
Low, Bronwen. (2011). Slam school: Learning through conflict in the hip-hop and spoken word classroom. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Louder than a Bomb curriculum guide. (REFERENCE TO COME – this is being completed)
Morrell, Ernest, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade. 2004. What they do learn in school: Hip-hop as a bridge to canonical poetry. In What they don’t learn in school: Literacy in the lives of urban youth, ed. Jabari Mahiri, 247-268. New York: Peter Lang.
Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. (2000) Ed. Gary Glazner. Manic D Press.
Rose, Tricia. (1994). Black noise: Rap music and Black culture in contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
The Anthology of Rap. (2010). Eds. Adam Bradley & Andrew Dubois. New Haven: Yale University Press
Poetic license. 2001. Directed by David Yanofsky. San Francisco: Independent Television Service.
Russell Simmons presents brave new voices. 2009. Directed by Stan Lathan. Los Angeles: Simmons Lathan Media Group.
Slam. 1998. Directed by Marc Levin. New York: Offline Entertainment.

SlamNation: The sport of spoken word. 1998. Directed and produced by Paul Devlin. 

Bronwen E. Low