Brian Mooney has no doubts about the effectiveness of using hip-hop and slam poetry in his English classes at High Tech High School, in North Bergen, NJ. Students are now excited about class — they bring in samples from artists even Mooney doesn’t know.
But beyond sparking a light in the 9th, 10th and 11th graders he teaches — Mooney is helping them walk away with research, literacy and critical thinking skills he knows they’ll take with them on to their next chosen path.
“One student wrote a spoken word piece about gentrification that included specifics and statistics,” says Mooney, who is also pursuing his Ph.D. at Teachers College at Columbia. “The amount of learning embodied in some of these performance pieces is just as much as you can see and measure as in a research paper.”
To administrators or curriculum specialists, rap may appear to be an unconventional teaching method, but lifting words from books and paper, and letting students speak them aloud, may have a solid educational boon. Whether that’s using original poetry that doubles as a research assignment, or encouraging students to debate their work out loud, educators find there are positive effects from letting kids talk through their thinking, and present audible, rather than written, projects.
Listening and speaking skills are crucial today — and emphasized as part of the Common Core Standards. Students in the 11th and 12th grade are expected to deliver information in such a way that their peers can, among other requirements, understand the speaker’s logic and point.
Kathy Sholtys, a former elementary and middle school teacher, believes role-playing is one of the ways students can develop these skills. With this method, students take on different perspectives, while having another avenue to present their learning.
Currently a consultant based in Ithaca, NY, Sholtys says role-playing can be something as simple as students giving each other feedback on their work, or something more elaborate where they voice different opinions on a topic out loud.
Even before they open their mouths to speak, children have to design — in their head — a central idea and supporting points. Students build speaking ability — while those hearing their presentations strengthen listening competency as well.
“They can see if their opinions have merit even before they write them down,” she says. “And then you can have them switch opinions. This not only strengthens their language skills, but also their contextual understanding.”
Mooney, who holds a popular after-school club for hip-hop music and slam poetry at school, says students are also building critical literacy skills when writing their own music and poetry. He knows students must learn how to analyze, evaluate and discern the relevance of what they read. But those skills are also tested as they make choices when they write and create their own pieces.
“We’re looking at young people not just as consumers of media and text, but also as producers of new texts,” he says.
Putting these methods into play takes work, notes Sholtys. Students sometimes don’t know how to begin to express their thoughts aloud and may need some help learning how to express their thoughts critically out loud. This means teachers should plan on investing time before launching a role-playing or spoken word assignment — so they know what they hope students can learn and accomplish from the start.
“This requires more intention from the teacher,” she says. “Teachers need to think this through.”