Tag Archives: literacy

Teaching Literacy and Advocacy Through Hip Hop

The words Hip Hop in block letters. I had the privilege of attending the standing-room only session, “Love, a Brave and Startling Truth: Healing Education Practices within the Cipher of Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Pedagogy” with Tish Jones and Moira Pirsch, at NCTE’s 2015 Annual Convention. Their session was one of many at the Convention that discussed the role of hip-hop in the English classroom. Educators are using this literary medium to teach more than language – they’re connecting it to discussions around race, social justice, and student agency. The quotes that follow are from NCTE members who have written and spoken on the topic. The articles linked below provide insights into how hip hop literacy can become part of your instruction too.

“We ultimately decided that we could utilize Hip-hop music and culture to forge a common and critical discourse that was centered upon the lives of the students, yet transcended the racial divide and allowed us to tap into students’ lives in ways that promoted academic literacy and critical consciousness,” explain Ernest Morrell and Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade in an article entitled Promoting Academic Literacy with Urban Youth through engaging Hip Hop Culture.

In another English Journal article Lauren Kelly describes her decision to incorporate hip-hop literacy into her teaching from the perspective of what is lost if she doesn’t: “The absence of hip-hop literacy in education does not only harm minority students. It also deprives white students of the opportunity to learn about others.”

David Kirkland describes his experience with hip-hop literacy both as a researcher and a teacher: “As an academic who has researched hip-hop and advocated for its use as a media literacy tool in the classroom, I have learned that hip-hop can be used in classrooms to inspire youth to be agents of social and political change.”

2015 NCTE Annual Convention presenters, Jamila Lyscott, Michael Cirelli and Tish Jones illustrate the above in the following videos:  “Broken English” (Jamila Lyscott), I am Hip Hop (Michael Cirelli) and Tish Jones: Tracks.

“Utilizing hip-hop in the classroom has proven to be a game changer for many students and teachers. Classrooms across the United States …have been transformed from atmospheres of chronic underperformance and sleepy disengagement to purposeful, dynamic, high-achieving learning environments characterized by meaningful lessons, engaged young people, and soaring academic aims—all by tapping the proven power of hip-hop pedagogy…” – From an introduction by Michael Cirelli and Alan Sitomer, Hip-Hop Language Arts: Thematic Textual Analysis

Is hip-hop part of your pedagogy? Tell us about it!

The Gospel According to Literacy

There was also a new bidding—and we could feel it from the vantage point of our Citizenship Program—across class and educational lines, across generations, across localities and dialects and family backgrounds. We could hear this unity in the singing voices and speaking voices of the people; it seemed we could even hear it in the earth itself, like a soft rumbling, a rhythmic beating of drums from all over the South. It was knowing, with undeniable and unshakable conviction, that our time had come. Andrew Young, An Easy Burden

Cover from Rhea Estelle Lathan's Book: Freedom Writing The following excerpt is from Rhea Estelle Lathan’s Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955–1967, the latest volume in the CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series.

The South Carolina Citizenship School fairytale goes something like this: Once Upon a Time, in the South Carolina swamps, Septima Clark, a matronly schoolteacher, gathered a few tired, illiterate farmers and taught them to read and write. This bunch of tattered Jim Crow shuckin’ Lowcountry residents, suddenly, with little planning or forethought, decided they wanted social equality. With Clark’s help, they learned how to read the South Carolina Constitution. Armed with their newly acquired “literacy,” the farmers fearlessly marched into the Charleston City Hall and, magically, without incident, registered as voters. Literacy saved the day. Literacy was the golden key that unlocked the gates to civic freedom. White South Carolinians surrendered their Jim Crow practices, integrated lunch counters, and graciously opened schools to black children. The fairytale ends as Septima Clark runs notorious Jim Crow laws out of South Carolina. And the South Carolina Sea Islands residents lived happily ever after. The End.

This is a nice, neat fantasy. Other romantic adaptations have Clark traveling all over the South with a bag of literacy, which she spreads like pixie dust over “Jim Crow,” leading to his ultimate demise. These romantic adaptations reinforce an African American rags-to-riches fantasy that ultimately perpetuates misrepresentations of African American literacy activism. They also legitimize social inequalities that stem from uncritical and incomplete histories. When we tell the stories of our leaders in the struggle for our rights, rarely do we look beyond “Super Septima,” “Tired Rosa Parks,” or “Mighty Man-on-the-Mountain Martin Luther King Jr.” We don’t have to look far to locate nostalgic Hollywood movies or documentary films about the brave Freedom Riders, courageous Montgomery bus boycotters, or heroic Selma marchers. However, if we consider civil rights icon Andrew Young’s declaration from the vantage point of the Citizenship Program, we hear an instrument that amplifies local, community-based voices. A more complete narrative restores participant voices to the historical record. This occurs when we listen carefully to the people dedicated to both teaching and learning.

An oversimplified narrative of the Civil Rights Movement in general, or an uncritical analysis of the Citizenship Schools specifically, casts a shadow on primary sources of African American literacy practices. Freedom Writing illuminates principal resources and lays bare the Citizenship Schools myth, which is often a placatory narrative that obscures hard truths about the role of writing—learning and teaching—during the Civil Rights era. Literacy activism is especially viable within the context of a social movement designed to take up the ongoing fight against intellectual oppression.

The Citizenship Schools are a chapter in the continuing struggle against the overwhelming justification for relegating black people to subhuman positions: the belief that they were, by-and-large, illiterate. Not until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision did we began to see the demise of prevailing US education policies that had enforced laws preserving educational access exclusively for whites (Prendergast, Literacy 16). The decision emboldened black communities en masse to demand their inalienable constitutional rights. The Brown decision was the gateway to civic inclusion, but Citizenship Schools were the path up to the door.

Beginning with fourteen students on Johns Island, South Carolina, the schools grew to include more than 60,000 participants throughout the South and later became the largest program of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The schools set a precedent in mass literacy activity for African Americans that extended far beyond the goal of African American voter registration. They were an empowering force against the dehumanizing strain of segregationist ideologies, guiding many participants into activism. Then, as now, national studies claimed that African Americans lacked the literacy skills required to keep pace with their white American counterparts. If we look to the Citizenship Schools for an innovative perspective on literacy, we both recover and revise a vocabulary for discussing the literacy history of marginalized groups—in this case, the learners and teachers who participated in the Civil Rights crusade.

The Desire for Literacy 7: A Door Open

This is the seventh of eight excerpts we are offering from Lauren Rosenberg’s The Desire for Literacy: Writing in the Lives of Adult Learners, a volume in the CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series. We’ll be offering a new excerpt each Monday. In this book, Dr. Rosenberg shares the literacy experiences of four learners who attended the Read/Write/Now Adult Learning Center, a library-based informal education site in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Lauren Rosenberg’s The Desire for Literacy

Violeta states that there are many reasons why writing matters. Some of her intention is functional:

When I have to sign form or when I sign my paper for Section 8, before I was no doing that. Now I sit down, and I read it, and I sign it. I no was doing that before. Like my paper for Section 8, it was a lot of paper. Before I was going crazy. I had to get it from help. I do that now with myself. . . .

     By the time I met her, Violeta already spoke of writing as a means of becoming, my word but her concept, a theory without the theoretical language. Most of her comments about writing connect the process with working out the story of her life. We talked about that relationship:

     What do you like to write?

About my life. About my life, yeah.

     So when you do the kind of projects that Carolyn [her teacher] has you doing here, are those enjoyable to you?

Mm hmm. I do, partly, part of my portfolio is about my life. That’s what I do. Because that helping me a lot to get out what did I go in and explain to me. And I do about my life book. I want to see when I before, was Violeta before? Was Violeta right now? The progress that I make.

     So you want to look at your progress?

Mm hmm.

Is it special to you to get down those stories too?

Is special for me. Porque I can see the difference. I can, when I do that, when I was writing about my life, I can see I was afraid before. I not right now. I can see the progress. I was before afraid [to] get out [in] front of the world. Before I would say, ‘I cannot do this. This is not for me. Uh-uh.’ I don’t know how to get it, pero when I get any and open the door for me and I do it, I can see the difference about my life.

 Violeta continually refers to education as a “door open.” Before, the door was closed, and even though she knew what lay behind it, literacy was unattainable. She was locked inside, the door sealed between her and both street and school, preventing her from having the freedom to pursue anything more than domestic responsibilities. Now Violeta raises her own children and also cares for her daughter’s babies. She worries about the children of her son in prison. She worries about her own compromised health. But she also finds time to acknowledge that there is a “door now open” and that she can slip through that door to give herself the literacy education she has wanted all her life. There is nothing specific that she wants from literacy, but Violeta’s discussion makes it clear that she has begun a process she wants to “keep moving.”

All eight of our excerpts from this book will be added here.


The Desire for Literacy 6: Guinea Pigs

This is the sixth of eight excerpts we are offering from Lauren Rosenberg’s The Desire for Literacy: Writing in the Lives of Adult Learners, a volume in the CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series. We’ll be offering a new excerpt each Monday. In this book, Dr. Rosenberg shares the literacy experiences of four learners who attended the Read/Write/Now Adult Learning Center, a library-based informal education site in Springfield, Massachusetts.


Lauren Rosenberg’s The Desire for Literacy“Are we guinea pigs?”

I’ve just given a simple explanation of who I am and why I’m there, but George rebuts my introduction to his class. I argue a weak “no,” (Melissa [his teacher] looks at me quizzically, as if to ask, how are you going to respond to that one?), but George’s remark has already said it: I don’t believe you, white lady. . . .

When I approached the people I hoped to work with as case study participants, the two women responded immediately with excitement, asking when we would begin. Chief, though less enthusiastic initially, said okay, it would be fine. But George, who I assumed would be willing, even forthcoming, would not make eye contact. What would he have to do, he wanted to know?

Meet with me to talk about your writing.

“Are you going to take pictures?”

No, I’m just going to talk with you, no pictures. And, I’m going to make a copy of all your writing.

“It’s not any good.”

It doesn’t have to be good. I’m just going to talk to you about your writing.

“I’ll have to think about it. I’ll let you know.”

How could this be? George’s reluctance forced me to confront myself—white, younger, literate, female—and guess at how he might rank these categories. I figured that literate trumped the others, but I worried over the way I was presenting myself to him. When I spoke with Pamela, the program coordinator, she told me it was none of that. George doesn’t want his picture taken. He doesn’t want people to see that he goes to a literacy center. He is afraid of being evaluated. It had taken him years to trust Melissa and her. And you should see how he used to resist writing. For his first few years in the program, George wouldn’t write anything. Melissa was adamant that it would be good for him to have to discuss his writing with me. So she spoke with George, he said yes, and we moved ahead, but cautiously. I was so careful preparing for George’s interview and interacting with him at the center. I wanted to do all the right things to show I was an ethical researcher who respected him. Over time I would come to understand that his frequent displays of reluctance were a performance; that he was, in fact, preoccupied with how he would appear in public, as Pamela had claimed. But at that moment, I tried to compensate for his unwillingness, as well as my own anxiety that he would show up at the interview and refuse to speak, by completely rewriting my questions to suit him. I softened them. “How can I draw him out so he won’t quit?” I asked myself again and again as I prepared for our meeting.

We are alone in the library. George asks me whether I will be publishing the interview in the newspaper. No, I assure him, nothing in the news and no photos of him, ever. He likes going over the consent form; it relaxes him a bit. I ask the first questions: “Did you attend school? Where? When?” George launches into the entire story of his education, his lack of schooling, coping with nonliteracy throughout his life, his desire to get an education in recent years. He speaks with hardly a pause for one hour, and then, “Well, I guess I gotta go now,” and we are done.


All eight of our excerpts from this book will be added here.


The Desire for Literacy 5: Just Because You Can’t Read

This is the fifth of eight excerpts we will be offering from Lauren Rosenberg’s The Desire for Literacy: Writing in the Lives of Adult Learners, a volume in the CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series. We’ll be offering a new excerpt each Monday. In this book, Dr. Rosenberg shares the literacy experiences of four learners who attended the Read/Write/Now Adult Learning Center, a library-based informal education site in Springfield, Massachusetts.


Lauren Rosenberg’s The Desire for LiteracyEverybody at Read/Write/Now has a story. There’s Calvin, who has been in and out of the center since it opened. He still sounds out every word when he reads, tracing a line under the text with his leathery brown fingertip and attempting to make meaning. And Terrance, who seeks advice from the teachers about how to handle his divorce. Sometimes he tears up when he talks about how his wife abused him, but then his tears reveal another level of frustration and anger as he describes his meetings with the lawyer, who demands that he sign here and here. The lawyer won’t explain what the documents mean. He won’t read them aloud to Terrance. He talks to him like Terrance doesn’t understand. “Just because you can’t read doesn’t mean that you don’t know,” Terrance trembles when he says this. “It’s unjust! I’m like a blind man.” He explains that people manipulate you when you don’t know how to read and write, and their actions can be “very hurtful.” There are women who had babies when they were girls or who had to raise their mothers’ babies, women who have endured jail sentences, abuse, depression, diabetes. There’s always poverty. This book is about the literacy experiences of four particular people who studied at Read/Write/Now, but it could have been about many other learners who went there because, despite the challenges of their lives, they had always wanted to read and write. …

One day while I am observing, Lee Ann and her classmate Terrance wrestle with a writing assignment. They both ask me for assistance to the point that each becomes annoyed when I give attention to the other. Lee Ann finally bursts out that writing is too hard, she can’t do it; she storms out of the classroom and out of the building. Terrance remains in the room, worn and quiet. But before long Lee Ann returns, and then she is able to talk with Terrance and me about the frustration they both experience when writing. It’s not like reading, which unlocks culture and offers itself up to them. Writing is about too many rules. It brings back their earlier failures and blocks, reminds them of feeling unable.

I think of Lee Ann at home in her kitchen, showing me the letter magnets on her refrigerator, which she has attempted to form into the “five wh’s” in a list (who, what, where, when, and why), but not all of the “wh” words are correct. This is a self-imposed task, not an assignment she would get at Read/Write/Now. I wonder why she has set up this exercise for herself, and then Lee Ann tells me: this display is her effort at “getting it.” As I listen to her explain her reasons for displaying and memorizing the “wh’s,” I start to understand her rationale: practicing a conventional act of literacy acquisition will give her the winning ticket, the way in to acquiring standard spelling.


All eight of our excerpts from this book will be added here.