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

by Bronwen Low


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804763653
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/22/2011
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bronwen E. Low is Associate Professor of Education at McGill University. She is the coauthor of Reading Youth Writing: "New" Literacies, Cultural Studies and Education (2008), with Michael Hoechsmann.

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Copyright © 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6366-0

Chapter One


SLAM SCHOOL examines the dynamics of teaching and learning in three high school classrooms that engaged hip-hop culture. This study does so in order to build a new, possibly counterintuitive, argument: the very reasons teachers and administrators might resist the deliberate introduction of hip-hop into the planned curriculum—the culture's complex and contradictory politics of representation on issues such as gender, violence, sexuality, materialism, race, and language—are what make hip-hop so pedagogically vital. In 2002 and 2004, I researched, helped develop, and cotaught a senior English performance poetry curriculum that included studies of rap music and hip-hop culture. I worked with Tim, a high school language arts teacher, and Rashidah, a performance poet and arts educator.

The transcripts of classroom interactions, performances, and interviews with students and teachers were rife with stories of conflict and misinterpretation: high school versus popular culture; white teachers and administrators versus black and Latino students; black versus white students; and adults versus adolescents. While such conflicts are routine, they became important catalysts for debate and analysis in our course. Discussion and debate, for instance, about uses of the "N-word" by hip-hop generation youth brought to the surface some rarely addressed tensions that shape the relations between racially marginalized youth and mainstream education. The spoken word curriculum was a place to air and, at its best, work through these tensions, leading to new insights and understandings for teachers as well as students. This book makes the case for critical hip-hop pedagogies by exploring some of the ways hip-hop's tricky politics of representation catapulted the classrooms into the center of contemporary cultural debates about culture, language, and identity in real and tangible ways.

The "natural order of things" in school was also challenged, from the start, by having students' out-of-school (and hallway) culture become the explicit stuff of curriculum, given that this is usually part of the "null" curriculum, or what schools don't teach (Eisner 1994). This move put students in a rare position of curricular authority, testified to by the student's proud claim that "there's a lot going on in the school teachers don't know about." The mock-Olympic poetry slams —which served as the course's culminating experience— highlighted the performance and poetic talents of students who were not usually at the center of the literary stage in the school.

By tackling taboo classroom subjects and drawing on the cultural capital of youth, we worked to "flip the script" (in hip-hop terms) of the business as usual of traditional schooling. This business includes the explicit curriculum such as course topics, texts, and assessment practices, as well as the "hidden curriculum" (Apple 1990), a product of structures of teaching and curriculum and the organization and administration of schools. The hidden curriculum's teachings (including the importance of obedience to authority, punctuality, delayed gratification, as well as the naturalness of competition and hierarchy through systems such as tracking) reflect the values and needs of dominant culture and help produce the systemic underachievement of poor and minority youth.

According to 2003 census materials, 47 percent of the students in this arts magnet high school were African American, 17 percent were Hispanic, and 33 percent were white. There are a larger percentage of white students in the school than across the district at large, in part due to the art magnet school's reputation, as one student put it, as the "district's baby." In this sense, the school fulfills part of the mission of magnet schools to attract white students to inner-city schools (Orfield, Frankenberg, and Lee 2002). That said, the school was not ranked as "high performing" in the district's most recent annual report, based on 2005/2006 data, a designation given only to the district's science magnet secondary school, but fell instead into the "performing/ progressing" category. In the wider city school district, according to a 2008 report, 65 percent of the students are African American, 21 percent are Hispanic, and 12 percent are white. It is one of the poorest districts in the state, and 50 percent of the schools have a poverty rate of 90 percent or higher, while 88 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a common poverty index for school researchers). This profile makes the district and school typical of those found in many urban centers across the country. Schools in the United States are actually now more segregated than they were in the early 1970s, prior to the Supreme Court bussing order (Orfield, Frankenberg, and Lee 2002, 17). This resegregation of schooling means, for instance, that the average white kid attends a school that is four-fifths white, and less than 14 percent attend "multiracial" schools (in which at least three races comprise 10 percent or more of the total student population). The average African American attends a school that is less than one-third white, while the average Latino attends a school where less than half of the students are not Latino (with Latinos being the most segregated minority by race, class, and, increasingly, language) (Orfield, Frankenberg, and Lee 2002, 17).

That Tim is white while his students are predominantly black and Latino is also unremarkable—in a well-established trend in U.S. classrooms, as the student population grows increasingly diverse, the teaching population remains resiliently, and increasingly, white. For instance, data gathered by the National Educational Association indicated that as of 2001, approximately 90 percent of the teaching population was white, with the percentage of black teachers having declined from 8 to 6 percent since 1991 (Reading Today 2003). What is unusual is that a teacher with very little knowledge of hip-hop, and no personal connection to it (other than through his students' interests), chose to devote significant chunks of his courses to a hip-hop and performance poetry curriculum. This flies in the face of existing scholarship on hip-hop pedagogies in which the teacher usually brings a deep investment and knowledge of the culture to his or her students (Akom 2009; Hill 2009; Morrell and Duncan-Andrade 2004; Stovall 2006). Better understanding the dynamics of cultural insider and outsider-ness in teaching is one of this book's central preoccupations. Given the racial composition of the classes that I taught and studied in this school, Slam School focuses on African American youth in interaction with white youth, teachers, and administrators. While the book privileges the school experience of black youth, I hope that its insights can be built on by other researchers working in the United States and elsewhere with more recent immigrant and refugee students or other racialized, linguistically diverse groups who don't fit easily within the black/white racial dichotomy. The conclusion sketches out some of these possibilities.

The high school language arts curriculum we developed drew on student interests in hip-hop culture and explored contemporary spoken word forms within the contexts of oral poetic traditions, African American literature, and traditions of art and politics. The course consisted of investigations into and workshops about performance and writing and culminated in a competitive "mock-Olympic" poetry slam. The diversity of poetic forms that we engaged and the importance of slam poetry to the course mean that the book's emphasis on hip-hop culture and pedagogies is a bit misleading; the course taught the "spoken word" more generally. However, most of the conflict and indeed much of what I saw as the learning in the course existed in relation to the complex nexus of representation, including language and imagery, offered by hip-hop culture and, more specifically, rap music. While spoken word might be an easier sell to teachers and administrators, hip-hop was the hook that captured the attention of our students and then facilitated rich and complicated conversations about language, culture, and identity in these three classrooms.

This book takes the reader into the heart of these conflicts by sharing some of the classrooms' stories. These I read closely, paying careful attention to their language and metaphors through methods of discourse analysis. This focus on language responds to what Pitt and Britzman (2003) have described as the "problem of narrating experience" for both researchers and research participants, "known as the 'crisis of representation' in that the adequacy of language to capture experience is considered an effect of discourse rather than a reflection of that experience" (756). This discourse analysis approach is also a study of processes of interpretation because I regularly offer a series of lenses, sometimes competing, through which one can understand a story, interaction, conversation, or comment. I argue that hermeneutic indeterminacy necessarily shapes all attempts at understanding what happens in the social world, and so processes of interpretive inquiry around human interaction and meaning-making need to be as dynamic and multivalent as possible. The book thus grapples with the conflicts and tensions that shape hip-hop culture's relationship with formal schooling and processes of ethnographic research, analysis, and writing. The complexity of unpacking classroom events benefits from an interdisciplinary theoretical framework; for instance, I draw on cultural studies, hip-hop studies, sociolinguistics, and poetics.

Slam School is grounded in accounts of curricular practices and classroom experiences in order to delineate the space of critical hip-hop pedagogies but also to do analytic work around questions of difference, popular culture, and meaning-making in education. The book addresses various forms of social difference in classrooms, including generation, gender, and most centrally race, for the classroom became a dynamic, if fraught, place for explorations of race and racism. Given the North American pattern of increasingly nonwhite classrooms being primarily taught by white teachers, this book also works to be a useful part of the project of equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills required to teach students who share different histories and cultures. Given the divergent experiences, expectations, opportunities, and horizons of meaning and value of members of what has been called the "civil rights generation" from those of the "hip-hop generation" (Boyd 2002; Kitwana 2002), African American teachers might also feel culturally disconnected from hip-hop identified students. Also relevant to this classroom study is its context in the heyday of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal legislation determining educational policy in Bushera schools (building on similar policies from the Reagan-era onward). Tim's student-centered pedagogy and curriculum is a different kind of response to the systemic academic underachievement of African American and other students than NCLB's standards-based reform, with the latter's emphasis on a "back-to-basics" approach to curriculum and high-stakes standardized testing models. Early twenty-first-century schools in the United States are also grappling with continuing funding cuts and "zero-tolerance" policies that criminalize school misconduct and that, along with school-based arrests, heightened police and security presence, as well as disciplinary "alternative" schools, help produce the "school-to-prison pipeline" which increasingly discriminates against African American and other minority youth. (See, for instance, the report by the Florida State Conference, "Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida," which revealed that in Florida during the 2004–5 school year, black students received 46 percent of out-of-school suspensions and police referrals statewide, but comprised only 22.8 percent of the student population.

As part of this inquiry into the implications of hip-hop and spoken word culture for education, I include a discussion of related educational activities developed in out-of-school settings such as community and youth centers. There has been an explosion of such programming in urban centers across North America based on all elements of hip-hop culture and spoken word, designed to engage a range of populations such as "youth at risk." Here I draw on examples from some of my current research and partnerships in Montreal on informal education, as well as my involvement as a board member with a youth center that has extensive hip-hop related offerings. In this way, the book participates in a relatively recent conversation on the pedagogies and curriculum of informal education, invigorated by educational researchers who are exploring alternative sites of learning, having in part lost hope in schools under No Child Left Behind.


Rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society. Rap's contradictory articulations are not signs of absent intellectual clarity; they are a common feature of community and popular cultural dialogs that always offer more than one cultural, social, or political viewpoint.

Rose, Black Noise (2)

What is hip-hop culture, and where did it come from? In her classic text on hip-hop culture, Rose (1994) situates hip-hop geographically and historically in the "margins of postindustrial urban America" (21). This American/global postindustrial space is characterized by the replacement of industrial factories with information-service corporations; multinational corporations' growing control over national economies; the international division of labor; the withdrawal, since the 1970s, of federal funding for social services; and the purchase and gentrification of working-class neighborhoods by developers. These all helped produce the shrinking of working-class job opportunities; housing shortages; the entrenchment of racial, class, and gender disparities; decreasing opportunities for social mobility; and the gutting of traditional inner-city community support networks. Such postindustrial conditions of "profound social dislocation and rupture" (39) provide the context for hip-hop's emergence, first in the Bronx and then in other major metropolitan centers in the United States, including, famously, Los Angeles and other West Coast cities.

The DJ was the original artist in rap music. One popular version of rap's history begins with DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican who brought the "toast and boast" tradition of roots reggae to the Bronx. The Jamaican "Yard DJ" would spin records on a sound system, which included turntables and speakers, and then talk or "rap" over the ska or reggae beats (Toop 1991; Perkins 1996). In the Bronx, Kool Herc and other early DJs would power these sound systems by hooking them up to a public power source, such as a street lamp, entertaining crowds at open-air block parties. Herc became known for producing a continuous danceable beat by cutting back and forth between two turntables playing the same rhythm section or "break beat" of an album. Herc and subsequent DJs "extended the most rhythmically compelling elements in a song, creating a new line composed of the most climactic point in the 'original'" (Rose 1994, 74). While Herc would recite "prison-style rhymes" in Jamaican style over the beats, the practice of having someone "rap" over the music did not become standard until DJs had developed such a following in clubs that they were drawing the crowd's attention away from dancing. The role of the emcee (or MC) or "rapper" was born to verbally incite the dancing.

The term "rap music" refers to the combination of the DJs rhythm tracks and the emcee's lyrics. "Hip-hop," however, is the larger culture of which rap is just one element. This terminology can be confusing, since "hip-hop" can also describe a musical category that includes rap but also rap's hybrid forms, crossovers with other genres like R&B and soul as in the music of Mary J. Blige, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott. Adding to this complexity are the "often mystified and emotionally charged meanings of 'hip-hop'" (Krims 2000, 11) as the term is used to distinguish between music that is considered socially and politically conscious, known as "hip-hop," from its more socially retrograde forms, dismissed as "rap." In this book, I use "hip-hop" to describe the larger culture, in the manner of MC KRS-One (2001) who explains, "hip-hop is not just a music, it is an attitude, it is an awareness, it is a way to view the world. So rap music is something we do, but hip-hop is something we live." KRS-One also expands hip-hop's typical typology of four elements to include nine: "breaking, emceeing, graffiti art, deejaying, beatboxing, street fashion, street language, street knowledge, and street entrepreneurialism—trade and business" (see Parmar 2009, for a full discussion of this artist's critical pedagogy). Evidence of hip-hop's shape-shifting and growth includes Chang's (2007) most recent collection on hip-hop that documents the emergence and fluorescence of the "hip-hop arts" (xiii), including hip-hop theater, literature, photography, film, spoken word, and journalism.


Excerpted from SLAM SCHOOL by BRONWEN E. LOW Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

1 Toward a Critical Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Pedagogy 1

2 "Keepin' It Real": The Discourse of Authenticity and the Challenge for Hip-Hop Pedagogies 29

3 The Tale of the Talent Night Rap: Black Popular Culture in Schools and the Challenge of Interpretation 63

4 "Making Sense Out of Worlds that Are Different": Race and Hip-Hop Pedagogies 87

5 Niggaz, Bitches, and Hoes: Hip-Hop Nation Language as Limit-Case for Education 113

6 Pedagogic Futures for Hip-Hop and Spoken Word 144

Notes 159

Bibliography 165

Index 179

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