February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Yo, Hamlet! Using Hip Hop With Your Students

How one teacher uses hip-hop to unlock the classics

It’s not often that an English teacher working with poor inner-city kids ends up at the White House. But that’s exactly where Alan Sitomer was on April 26—standing in the Oval Office, cracking jokes and shaking hands with President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.

Sitomer and 53 other State Teachers of the Year were invited to Washington, DC, to attend a Rose Garden ceremony honoring their hard work and dedication. But by Monday morning, the English teacher was back in his classroom at Lynwood High School doing what he does best—teaching students about classic literature through hip-hop.

Ask the teens in Sitomer’s class if they’ve heard of Ludacris, Tupac, or Nas and you’ll get a resounding yes. Ask the same kids if they know the works of Dickinson, Kipling, or Keats, and you’ll get the same answer. In fact, these teens are experts at analyzing the poetry of hip-hop and the world’s greatest writers—and they can identify the symbolism, imagery, and irony in both.

What’s so special about that? These at-risk students attend a severely overcrowded, low-performing school in East Los Angeles that’s surrounded by what Sitomer describes as “gangs, guns, and drugs.” Prostitutes work the streets just a half mile away from the school, and many kids can’t take the most direct route home because it would put them in danger. “We have students every year who are victims of gang beatings, stabbings, and shootings,” Sitomer says.

Life at school is rough, too. There’s a campus probation officer who tracks students wearing electronic ankle bracelets and a canine crew regularly sniffs students for drugs and gunpowder. Many of the students are in foster care or come from troubled homes, so it’s not surprising that more than 45 percent drop out. “My students would rather go to the dentist than the library,” Sitomer says.

But since Sitomer’s arrival in the fall of 2000, things have changed—at least for those who have taken his class. Lynwood Assistant Principal Al Rowlson credits the English lit teacher with boosting academic performance. An amazing 98 percent of Sitomer’s sophomore students pass the English portion of the California high school exit exam, compared to only 57 percent schoolwide. The 19 students in his college-prep class all enrolled in four-year colleges.

Sitomer’s teaching philosophy is simple: “I believe in validating students and their interests,” he explains. “If you diminish their interests, you diminish them—and then you’ll never reach them.” During his early days at Lynwood, Sitomer had many sleepless nights, feeling “tortured” by his students’ disinterest in learning. “One night, I just decided that I couldn’t handle that my students weren’t engaged, and they were unwittingly becoming victims of their own apathy,” he remembers. Bringing hip-hop into the classroom was a natural way to turn things around.

Of course, all the lyrics taught in class are free of homophobia, misogyny, profanity, and violence. “This isn’t MTV, this is a classroom,” he explains. “And I have high academic expectations of my students.” By the end of the year, students read 14 novels, as well as works by contemporary writers like George Orwell, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson.

Dressed in a pair of Sketchers, jeans, and a lavender button-down shirt, the 40-year-old Sitomer walks around his classroom, telling a bunch of 10th-graders about one of his favorite writers. “You gotta realize that Shakespeare was a really cool dude,” says Sitomer, who’s so laid back that he’s a pretty cool dude himself. “I mean, he put rhymes down on paper about the same stuff that Biggie, Tupac, and Ice Cube laid down some of their best tracks about.”

Sitomer goes on to explain that Hamlet deals with the abuse of power, greed, and feelings of desperate isolation, exactly the same things Tupac sang about in his famous song “Me Against the World.”

“See, that’s why we study literature,” Sitomer continues, adding that inside the works of great writers we find universal themes of humanity. The whole point? That great literature isn’t just about the past, it’s very much a part of our lives today.

“Is there anyone in this room who hasn’t felt all alone?” he asks, knowing very well that most, if not all, of his students can relate. “And have you ever wondered if it’s ‘you against the world’? Have you ever thought about whether it’s worth it to go on or, as the Great Bard put it, ‘To be or not to be?'”

Students shake their heads in acknowledgement and Sitomer knows he has a captive audience that really gets what he’s talking about. “When the bell rings and students are still talking about your lesson on their way out from class, that’s when you know you’ve hit it out of the park,” he says with pride.

Sitomer also knows his lessons are hugely successful because students often say that he’s touched them in some special way. A few years ago, for example, a 15-year-old walked up to him after class and handed him a note. It was a thank-you letter for saving her life. The girl, who was in foster care, had problems at home and was falling seriously behind in school, but when Sitomer introduced her to Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” his analysis of the poem moved her so much that she had second thoughts about committing suicide. “I made the decision that if one little poem could have such an impact, what could an entire novel do?,” Sitomer recalls.

That was one of many incidents that inspired Sitomer to start writing novels, and so far, he has three—The Hoopster (2005), Hip-Hop High School (2006), and Homeboyz (2007, all Jump at the Sun)—all of which deal with issues taken directly from his students’ lives. Lynwood High Media Specialist Martha Flores says Sitomer’s students are always in the library asking to check out his books. Even Disney took an interest, immediately signing Sitomer to a three-book deal.

The great thing about hip-hop, Sitomer says, is that it isn’t just an urban phenomenon—and since everyone listens to it, his teaching technique can be adopted by all educators (see “Using Hip-Hop with Your Students”). He’s so convinced that just about anyone can do it that he self-published a teacher’s guide called Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics for the Classroom (MilkMug, 2004).

And his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2003, he was named teacher of the year by California Literacy, and in 2004 he won the award for classroom excellence by the Southern California Teachers of English. Loyola Marymount College, where he’s a part-time professor, recently named him educator of the year for teaching educators how to be successful in urban classrooms. And, last year, he won district teacher of the year, which of course, led to state teacher of the year and the White House.

With all of this national attention, other school districts are already trying to lure him away, and there have been offers to write full-time. But for now, Sitomer’s staying put. “I know I don’t need to stay in the classroom,” he says, “It’s simply out of love.”

Using Hip Hop With Your Students

Begin with a specific learning objective. The goal of bringing hip-hop to your students is to engage their interests while teaching them something of real academic value. However, when you first start to use hip-hop, it’s easy to find yourself adrift. Make sure you’ve planned a learning objective. That way, when things get exciting (possibly, a bit too exciting), you’ll know how to direct the conversation toward a specific academic goal. Utilize one or two core standards-based objectives as your compass. Teach irony. Teach subtext. Teach historical context. Just make sure you know where you’re going.

Choose your hip-hop intelligently. Despite what the media might lead you to believe, all hip-hop isn’t “gangsta rap.” I always do a short history lesson with my students, explaining that hip-hop, when it started in New York, was an artistic means of celebrating life and having fun. Then, like other artistic expressions, it changed, morphed, and grew in other directions. Some folks use hip-hop as a means to advance social change; some use it to create political awareness; some use it to express the frustration of their “inner city” experience; and some use it to simply dance and have a good time.

Encourage students to build bridges of relevance between hip-hop and academics. If you’re nervous about finding appropriate hip-hop, flip things around and let your students provide the hip-hop, while you provide the academics. Then, have your students meet you in the middle. You don’t need to be a hip-hop connoisseur to bring it into your class. Rather, illuminate whatever academic objective you wish, and then challenge your students to bring in a clean excerpt of hip-hop that uses the same literary techniques. For example, study Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred” and teach about imagery, rhyme scheme, and implied messages in the text. Afterward, challenge students to find and explicate those same elements in a sampling of hip-hop lyrics.

Let your kids educate you. Nobody can teach anything that they don’t know themselves. Challenge your students to educate you about hip-hop. Have them write a paper explaining why their favorite hip-hop artist is deserving of literary merit. Instead of asking for the same old tired biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., why not ask your students to do a research project about Jay-Z or a PowerPoint presentation on hip-hop culture?

Acknowledge the reality of today’s world. Hip-hop allows you to infuse some much-needed passion, energy, and excitement back into learning. A great place to start is with your own favorite pieces of literature. Explain why you love a particular book or poem. Explain what you think it says and why you are a better person for having read it. Then challenge your students to do the same with their hip-hop songs.Alan Sitomer

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.