“It wasn’t the readers that were disengaged… it was the classroom!” – Dr. Kirkland, NYU

I woke up Saturday at 5:30am in Minneapolis, took a deep breath, put on my running gear for a quick 4 miler (a run Steph joined me on), and immediately began to panic that no one would attend the session I was co-presenting at with Karlen, Steph, and Jess Spillane (our department chair).

As Steph and I ventured out into the dark, 19 degree morning to run the quiet streets, trails, and bridges or Minneapolis, I told myself: there is only so much you can control. I needed to remember that we were presenting at 2:45pm and I had a whole day of inspiring speakers to see before I presented.

In my previous blog post I took the notes I recorded in each session and composed them in (what I think was) an engaging and entertaining manner… For this post, I am going to bounce around, mainly because of the mixture of excitement and anxiety I felt all day awaiting my opportunity to stand in front of a crowd (hopefully) and share my teaching methods and assessments along with the other two lonenuts.

The session of the day for me was: Beyond Beats and Rhymes – A Conversation on Hip Hop in the New English Classroom. I had been looking forward to this session because I knew Michael Cirelli’s name from his work with Urban Word NYC. Before the session I looked up his co-presenter Dr. David E Kirkland and my excitement grew. Let me put it this way, if you (as a reader of this blog) get a chance to see Dr. Kirkland present you need to jump at it. He is logical, knowledgeable, and insightful. Cirelli called him his Game Changer*.

*Game Changer – a person or moment that changes the complexion of your previously unrealized viewpoint.

Yea, that!

Their presentation spoke to me because it was a validator of my practices. I have been teaching Spoken Word Poetry and Hip Hop Curriculum my entire 13 year career. I know the value of teaching a movement that is about being in the know and acting. The evidence and pedagogical connections that both presenters discussed provided support and encouragement for me to continue the work I have been doing.

Kirkland made me consider the following big points:

  • A study of Hip Hop can be rooted in a rich study of language. In fact, it will allow students to interrogate their own means of communication.
  • When students engage with texts that represent where they are at – WE ARE ENGAGING STUDENTS! In many cases a teacher has misjudged a disengaged learner:
    • “It wasn’t the readers that were disengaged… it was the classroom! Why start with a blank page when we can begin on page 100.”

A student who listens to and is immersed in the Hip Hop culture has the tools they need to write and in many cases are. Frequently, they are the students who have lines and lines of poetry memorized already. Ask a group of kids who say their into to hip hop to respond to the following line, “It was all a dream…” and see how far they will take it.

As a segue into Cirelli, he encouraged to view Hip Hop as a means for connection to canonical texts. The above referenced Juicy by Biggie is a rags to riches story. It correlates seamlessly with other stories of the same ilk. If we devalue the lessons we can take from Biggie’s perception of the American Dream, why not do the same to Willy Loman.

Cirelli encourages us as teachers to remember that when we are engaging students in a space that isn’t ours we are in “an apartment that (we) don’t live in.” I am in a culture that isn’t mine – even if I am a G, I’m still not in their culture, because I am an adult and they are students. I’m in an apartment that isn’t mine. If I recognize this and respect this, students will respect that I need something from them, as much as they need something from me.

Michael performed a poem for us that I believes demonstrates this point beautifully: My Bootleg Video of Michael Performing

In the end, Cirelli encouraged us to:

  • Be a champion for and create student centered classrooms – he called this “Cypher Centered Learning” – that:
    • Validates and champions youth voice
    • Celebrates indentity and culture as primary texts
    • And cultivates critical literacy skills

Lastly – Cirelli exposed us to Ramya Ramana, a teen voice that I had never heard before (but a teen voice I had heard before). She represents (to me) the truth in why we must let a student’s voice sing. Enjoy these videos:

Miss America

Youth Poet Laureate Ramya Ramana at Inauguration 2014

So… I left there and then had to present. My head was spinning with new ideas and I had to focus it all in and get ready to stand and deliver…

My fear came flooding back in…

We got to our room early and in the adapted words of WP Kinsella – “people (did) come…”


Putting yourself out there takes tenacity and a willingness to be vulnerable. These are the principles that many students (and adults) struggle with. As I sit here now and try to think about what I want to say about our presentation I can only say that I felt inspired and validated.

I am proud of what we talked about and how we delivered it.

I look forward to the new connections that we made and want to remind everyone who is reading this that we as teachers cannot let a title dictate our curriculum, we have to think about the skills we want students to learn. Furthermore, when thinking about those skills, think about your students. Ask yourself, does it help them grow. If you feel you need to change something… do it for them.

Thanks for reading and if you attended our session, thank you for the support – I hope we inspired you as much as the other speakers we saw inspired us.

NOTE – here is a link to our presentation in case you want it – Reading (R)evolution – and  here is the video we made of our readers for the first quarter – The Students of the Reading (R)evolution


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