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Inspired by a TC Student's Use of Hip Hop In the Classroom, Rap Artist Kendrick Lamar Visits NJ School

Back in March, Brian Mooney, an English teacher at High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey, was incorporating the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, into his lessons on Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye.

Mooney was studying the same album in his graduate class on hip-hop and education with Christopher Emdin, an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a global leader in hip-hop education, the use of hip-hop and rap in middle- and high school classes.

Mooney blogged about the value of contemporary hip-hop and rap in helping his New Jersey students understand a classic American work set in the rural South and published in 1970 – decades before they were born. The post got 150,000 hits in the first week. Lamar, one of the hottest performers on the contemporary hip-hop scene, read Mooney’s post and asked to visit his class.

The New York Times and NBC were on the scene as the critically acclaimed but unassuming rapper slipped into High Tech High just before lunchtime on June 8, accompanied only by two staff members and his fiancée. (NPR and Rolling Stone were there, too.) Lamar met with Mooney’s students and then with the student body of 800, and viewed performances of the students’ original rap, poetry, visual art, film and dance numbers, inspired by To Pimp A Butterfly and created for his visit.

The event illustrated how Emdin’s teaching and Teachers College have had a direct, real-time impact on students at High Tech High. Mooney took what he was learning in Emdin’s class and immediately adapted it for his own students. Both use the immediate feedback from the high school classroom to further refine their work.

“The hip-hop culture creates a space for the kids to develop their creativity,” Mooney said in an interview.

Mooney’s class of about 40 students erupted into screams as Lamar walked in the door, then quickly settled into a question-and-answer session about the connection of hip-hop to the study of literature.

Lamar, 27, told them that he first got the idea to become a poet in second grade, when he used the word “audacity” – spelled correctly, he noted – in a written assignment. His teacher at a public school in the Compton section of Los Angeles “looked at it and said, ‘wow—you could be a poet someday’,“ Lamar recalled. Five years later, his seventh-grade teacher reinforced the notion, and the young rapper was on his way to building a highly successful career as a rapper and poet.

The action moved down the hill to the Field House at the high school, where 800 screaming teenagers and teachers welcomed Lamar as he mounted a temporary stage and quietly took his seat on a panel including Mooney, Emdin and Jamila Lyiscott, a freshly minted TC doctoral graduate and Emdin mentee. The panel viewed and then responded to poetry readings by High Tech students Sade Ford and Ben Vock and an essay and performance art by student Joan Marie Tubungbanua.

All of them were responses to their study of To Pimp a Butterfly. The high school’s hip-hop dance club performed an original dance to a song from the album.

“It is truly a blessing for me to be here today,” Lamar told the students. “Thank you. The way you look at my music -- the way you all break it down – is amazing.” The two-time Grammy winner added, “No award is as good as this!”

Emdin and Teachers College are leaders in the international movement over the past decade to use hip-hop and rap, not just in English literature classes as it becomes part of the American – and now the world’s – literary canon – but in science, math, history and social studies classes as well. Emdin, Mooney, and others who use it say rap and hip-hop allow young students to explore a subject using cultural touch points that resonate with them and are part of their everyday lives and culture. It also encourages creativity and increases engagement in school, they say.

Intrigued by how their art is being used, two rap performers have dived in. In 2012, Emdin and the hip-hop artist GZA, a founding member of the seminal Wu Tang Clan, started Science GENIUS in New York City public high schools, a competition in which teams of students write and perform raps with science content drawn from their science studies.

The winners get the opportunity to record a professional-quality album. Science GENIUS, now in its third year, will have its 2015 rap performance on June 20 at Teachers College’s Cowin Auditorium, 120th and Broadway, New York City.

Published Monday, Jun. 8, 2015