Hip-hop in the classroom engages, reaches students

Michael Dando knew at a young age that he wanted to be a teacher.   

But throughout his early education, he often found himself in trouble for being too loud and asking too many questions.  

“I loved learning; I didn’t like schooling. I liked questions; I didn’t like being told answers,” Dando said. “And that still informs my practice today.”

When his tenth grade teacher let him teach a class, he knew he had found his calling.

Now a PhD candidate in the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Dando studies Multicultural and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy under the guidance of Dr. Carl Grant and Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings.  

In his work and study, Dando strives to use student culture as the bones of his teaching.  

“My hope is to listen to what the students are saying,” Dando said. “Students will tell you what they need and what they want.”

Dando believes students are capable of contributing their own material necessary to foster productive classroom engagement. He calls this “generative knowledge, making something out of nothing.”

UW-Madison faculty and Kellner Family Chair of Urban Education, Ladson-Billings, has developed this idea of culturally relevant pedagogy and focuses her studies on the inclusion of culturally relevant teaching to facilitate students’ academic success and personal connection to their education.  

In her book The Dreamkeepers, Ladson-Billings writes African American teachers make up less than 5 percent of the U.S. public school teaching population. This is problematic when 30 percent of the student population is made up of students of color.   

This incongruence contributes to a lack of synchronization between learning and lived experiences for African American students especially. But according to Ladson-Billings, this gap can be bridged through the incorporation of students’ realities into the classroom.   

“Culturally relevant teaching uses student culture to maintain it and to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture,” Ladson-Billings said.  

For Dando, this translates directly to the inclusion of hip-hop culture in the classroom.  

Prior to getting his PhD, Dando spent over a decade teaching in St. Louis as a high school teacher.   

“And what I saw was and what I heard was students had internalized what we would call ‘deficit perspectives,’” Dando said. “I would constantly hear talk about, ‘This is dumb,’ or ‘I can’t do this.’ Or they would demonstrate it by not coming to school, because the school wasn’t meaningful to them.”

But Dando recognized their knowledge. While his students were not demonstrating their intelligence within the traditional educational structure, he saw their engagement with hip-hop culture, showing deep knowledge of music and artists, reciting lyrics easily.  

“That mattered to them,” Dando said.  

He saw his students’ needs and desires, and he responded, just as his teacher did for him when he was in high school.   

Dando spent the fall of 2016 working with Clark Street Community School in Middleton to develop a yearlong culturally relevant course.  

The class included studying the history of hip-hop, implementing their literary skills to write rhymes and ultimately recording at the Madison Public Library.  

Dando had students who told him, “I didn’t know I could write or that I liked to write.”

“They were working on multiple drafts, selling it to people… They were putting it out there, getting feedback, using that to make their piece better,” Dando said.  

The creative process fostered a “stick-to-it-iveness” unseen in the students previously.  

Dando described one student who stayed up until two in the morning working on one of his pieces for the class.  

“He was working on homework. He was doing intellectual scholarly work on his own time,” Dando said. “He wouldn’t necessarily do that on math problems.” 

The class not only developed into a learning community, but it also got the students excited about what they were learning, according to Dando.   

Dando is currently working with MMSD as it prepares to swap “Contemporary Music Studies” courses for “Hip-Hop Studies” in the 2017-18 school year at all four of the high schools.   

MMSD will look to the course at Clark Street Community School and use resources from Hip-Hop in the Heartland, a social justice and urban education symposium at UW-Madison, as they move forward.  

On April 10, Hip-Hop in the Heartland hosted a one-day event featuring speakers including Dr. David E. Kirkland, Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and Dr. Bettina L. Love, author and professor of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia.  

Speakers discussed hip-hop education, the role of identity and culture in the classroom, and education in the Trump era.  

MMSD Arts Education Coordinator Laurie Fellenz, along with a handful of MMSD teachers, were in attendance.  

At the moment, West High School offers a hip-hop course, which the students value and want access to, according to Fellenz.   

As for the 2017-18 school year, course development is a “real-time, living process,” Fellenz said.  

“One of the biggest challenges educators face, especially in public schools, is the standardized assessment pressure,” Dando said.   

However, standardization is not yet a point of conflict as there is some flexibility granted due to the fact that this course will be offered as an elective. Students will not be required to take a hip-hop studies course, according to Fellenz.  

While this course is only one of a handful of electives available to students, Fellenz sees the deep value of incorporating hip-hop even beyond the music classroom and its potential role in addressing Madison’s disparity gap.  

“Structurally, the education system is leaving folks behind,” Dando said.  

In the 2015-2016 school year, MMSD high schools had a graduation rate of 80.4 percent. While this number has been increasing since 2012, MMSD still falls behind the state’s overall graduation rate of 88.4 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

There is also a significant racial disparity in MMSD graduation rates. White students graduated at a rate of 91.4 percent in 2015, Hispanic students at 68.4 percent and African American students at 58.7 percent.  

In the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), 18 percent of students are African American and 21 percent are Latino.  

Greater efforts toward including hip-hop education may be an answer to these issues, as hip-hop education is an inclusive educational strategy, according to Dando.   

For him, the most important aspect of education is the idea that “knowledge comes from democracy.” He values the collaboration of people and the acknowledgment that there is no perfect way to approach teaching.   

Fellenz realizes that MMSD staff alone are unlikely to be fully equipped to teach such a course as comprehensively as necessary for full engagement and fidelity to the hip-hop culture, so they will be collaborating with local artists and community teachers.  

“I think it’s critical we provide for our students many opportunities to express their authentic selves along with their individual truths,” Fellenz said.

And she believes that this can be achieved through hip-hop pedagogy.  

Fellenz said she hopes to see a wider incorporation of culturally relevant teaching throughout MMSD in years to come. With “an exceptional team of music educators and visionaries,” Fellenz feels empowered to develop an authentic learning experience to grow MMSD.  

This individualistic learning environment is what Dando believes will help repair the educational system he has struggled with since his own experience in the public school system.  

“What can’t you do in the classroom? Well, you can do anything as long as you’re thinking differently,” Dando said.