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Battling Poverty with Rap: Collaborative Rule Building and Student Agency

I am not sure what I was expecting this summer when I arrived in Harlem to intern with Harlem Children Zone’s Writing Corps, but whatever notion I had, I am certain that it was bested by my eight weeks as a teaching artist and curriculum collaborator in the lively, successful nonprofit. Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) was born out of the realization that the counter-truancy efforts of the 90s, left to their own devices, were insufficient to secure a bright future for Harlem youth. The founder of the organization, Jeffrey Canada, and his colleagues, sought to construct an education-centric patchwork of social programs woven so tightly that no youth in Harlem would fall through the cracks. From the time of its founding, HCZ has appealed to students’ desire for self-expression to construct arts-based learning spaces supplementary to students’ normal school days.  Today HCZ, the largest employer in Harlem, serves more than ten thousand youth and almost as many adults each year with programs stretching from prenatal parent support to support for HCZ alumni pursuing their bachelor’s degrees. To combat the behemoth school to prison pipeline, HCZ has built a cradle to college pipeline. Along the way the Children’s Zone has been scaled up to cover 97 blocks and flipped the cultural expectation in Harlem; there, college is the new norm for young people.

“Giving someone caught in the cycle of poverty their own voice back and forming them to use it to self-advocate is crucial to winning the war on poverty,” writes Wishart who interned at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in 2017. He took this photo of a mural painted in the recess yard of a HCZ supported elementary school.

HCZ’s Promise Academy Charter Schools boast a 100% college acceptance rate and HCZ as a whole now has over 1000 alumni currently enrolled in undergraduate degree programs. These statistics are evidence of HCZ’s college prep success, but the organization does not stop its support at a students’ college acceptance. To fight the cycle of poverty in Harlem the organization shares the responsibility to ensure that students graduate from college. When HCZ students first began entering college in droves, they were not prepared to continue their success. HCZ’s students of color often felt impeded by culture shock when they attended predominantly white institutions and were generally unprepared for writing at the college level.  The HCZ mission therefore expanded from supporting students access to college to supporting them through college. This reactive support founded the College Success Office to monitor students’ progress and act as a surrogate “concerned and nagging middle class parent” who makes sure his or her child makes the right choices. At the same time, HCZ launched Writing Corps to spearhead a proactive creative writing boot camp for tenth and eleventh grade students called “Education, Opportunity, Success” (EOS). EOS sought to prepare students for college environments and introduce them to collegiate writing. I spent most of my summer on HCZ’s Writing Corps collaborating on this summer’s curriculum, creating this summer’s teaching aides, and co-facilitating EOS lessons.

I spent most of the first half of my internship building curriculum and learning aids with the other members of Writing Corps. Essentially, this meant that I used lesson plans to give myself a crash course in three of the four offered EOS classes—lyricism, poetry, and visual art—before formatting the plans’ content into PowerPoint. Prior to my internship I believed, from my own experiences, that if every struggling, disinterested student had equitable access to committed teachers with exciting, hands-on pedagogy they would excel. In the Writing Lab, our think tank where socially conscious arts-based writing skills lessons are created, I learned that a seemingly innocuous phrase like “exciting, hands-on pedagogy” demands extensive and cautious preparation. How do we give students an introduction to lyric essay, a pretty new genre of poetry, that is both digestible and sufficient for them to begin writing their own? If there is no way, how could we possibly teach them about black erasure and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, without it?

In the classroom, I found that the pedagogy I had labored to plan was not simply for the struggling, disinterested student. Not every struggling student was disinterested and not every disinterested student was struggling. I had imagined young people either in dire need of intervention or else extraordinarily motivated students grateful for a unique chance to soak in all HCZ has to offer. Broadly speaking, however, I found two classes worth of normal students. In my lyricism classroom, nearly all were rap fans, and few considered themselves rappers. Almost as few considered themselves writers, even those who wrote well. Despite weeks of preparing debates on the best lyricists in hip-hop and writing exercises in the style of the most controversial and the most beloved rap artists of all time, most students had no perceivable intention of writing even a few lines in their rhyme books. The students obviously were learning well, because our discussions were filled with passionate and logical points, charged with the terms we discussed, but they too often would not write. Even some who regularly mustered the gumption to freestyle in front of the class resisted writing their thoughts down. This was particularly troubling because each small writing exercise was designed to prepare the students to pen a “fire” 16-bar verse for their final project.

I spent a large portion of my summer contemplating why my students resisted writing while being open to thoughtful discussion and verbal freestyling. In my last analysis, it seems that the largest obstacles to success this summer were not academic deficiencies, but confidence deficiencies. I was first distressed when many students did not complete their 16-bar summative composition and explanation of their lyrics. Yet, every student, even the most reluctant, demonstrated evidence that they learned to listen to hip-hop more critically. By the end of our time together, every student had shared a few bars or at least shouted praise for a classmate’s. Even the most adamant mumble rap haters assented that his songs were, if lacking for lyrical merit, well arranged. We did not succeed as EOS teachers in making the students stellar writers during one crash course hip hop class, but we did succeed in forming more conscientious and open-minded listeners, perhaps a little more likely to think of themselves as writers.

For a considerable time, I suspected that that their reluctance was because they were simply tired of school. The tenth-grade students who enter EOS in its first session are only on summer vacation proper for one week before Writing Corps starts lessons. Complaints were plentiful in the first few days. While probably a factor, I doubt that burnout was the main cause, because HCZ’s Summer EOS is not simply school. It is project-based curriculum deliberately constructed to present itself as yet another summer activity while teaching skills along the way. As a staff member, I was encouraged to favor project-based language and avoid classroom specific language to quell student resistance to “summer school” and help them enter a friendly creative space. I felt this principle poignantly illustrated when, in my first week as a teaching artist, a student resistant to writing packed up her bag and walked out of the room after I told her she should just write and because she was already in class. Certainly, the EOS environment is more laid back than many people are accustomed to. For example, we do not say that students are in class; rather, they are “in program.” To reinforce the notion that school yields pay, secondary school students in HCZ are given a stipend contingent upon their performance in school and behavior and attendance in HCZ.  In the summer EOS impacts students’ stipends, but they are not given letter grades; rather, the high school students are graded on a √-, √, √+ system. To create a laid-back environment and give the students ownership of their learning, the students were not dictated rules to obey during programming; rather, they were made agents in the construction of their learning space and collaborated with us staff members to make “community rules.”

This collaborative rule building was for me one of the most valuable take-aways of my own summer learning. To truly prepare students for collegiate writing we have to meet them where they were and show them that they, with all their passions, hopes, and dislikes, belong in a college environment. Many of my students who disliked school felt that way because they felt constrained in how they could move and about what they could talk, so our rules manifested as protections of the students’ voices. We made it clear that no one was permitted to talk over another person, as one would expect. But more importantly, we, as teaching artists, promised that we would not censor anything the students wrote or wanted to perform. This promise had only one caveat: in exchange, the students promised that they would include no hate speech in their work. The other EOS classes arrived at similar rules.

Giving someone caught in the cycle of poverty their own voice back and forming them to use it to self-advocate is crucial to winning the war on poverty. Collaboratively constructed rules directed toward protecting self-expressive creative projects (thereby protecting critical project-based learning opportunities) were essential to giving my students their voice. One disruptive and reluctant student, for example, was won over during the fourth class when he won applause after remixing a popular song’s chorus. Although his group members were embarrassed at first when he decided he wanted to rap about smoking hookah, we encouraged him to write whatever he felt fit the music best. We gave him simple permission to rap about something that a fourteen-year-old would be chastised for knowing so well elsewhere, and he opened himself up in a really encouraging way. He shed his “too cool for writing” persona and became one of the most vocal sharers of solid tough-guy rap in the class.  It struck me that the student likely would not have flourished in a conventional school setting because such talk from a 14-year-old would likely be censored.

The process to create dynamic pedagogy is painstaking and its rewards are, at face value, underwhelming. But this summer I found that strictly qualitative measurements do an injustice to students. Almost none completed their summative song verse, but everyone became significantly more critical readers of lyrics and participated in some for form of synthesis. Not every student learned to think of themselves as lyricists or writers, but all won the struggle to understand how the components of great lyric raps work together. Even those who were not ready to share their own voice yet were able to hear their contemporaries’ and were assured that their own mattered. Moreover, I learned this summer that socially mobile scholars are not fully cultivated in one season, but luckily HCZ is committed to its students for far more than one summer. Other organizations, particularly those education-interested, would do well to adapt the HCZ Promise neighborhood model and demonstrate the prolonged commitment to their beneficiaries not just as beneficiaries, but as consistently, unequivocally, valuable persons with something valuable to say.


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