The Power of Voice

Two Harding Middle School Teachers improve minority literacy skills through hip-hop

Ain’t nobody gonna win that war
My details be retail
Man, I got so much in store
Racism is still alive
Yellow tape and colored lines

Two students create beats on their desks as the music of Kendrick Lamar reverberates throughout an eighth-grade classroom of 18 students.  The topic of the day isn’t what is usually taught in an eighth-grade classroom – the disproportion of minorities in prison.  But it’s a topic that hits close to home for many of the students in the class.

Kristopher Rollins and Emily Lang have been teaching at Harding Middle School in Des Moines for almost two years.  Their main focus is to help minority students by teaching them about the stereotypes and expectations society has of them and how to break those expectations.

“There have been a lot of gun shots and homicides in Des Moines lately.  We have candid discussions about this because, unfortunately, those are our kids’ brothers and sisters that are involved,” said Rollins.

To teach these issues and to raise literacy skills in their students, Lang and Rollins use various albums of hip-hop artists, such as Kanye West and Lauryn Hill.  “We use themes, ideas, and the actual lyrics to discuss real issues that are a part of our kids’ culture,” said Lang.  “It’s just like using any other piece of text to teach skills and concepts of literature.  We’re just using a different medium to do that.”

When Rollins was earning his master’s degree in secondary curriculum and instruction at the University of Alabama, he had a student who didn’t know where the Atlantic Ocean was, but knew where the rapper Rick Ross was from, so he used that to teach the student.  “I used a line from a Rick Ross song to get the kid to understand where the Atlantic Ocean was, and that’s when things really started clicking,” said Rollins.

Hip-hop wasn’t a part of the community in rural Indiana where Rollins grew up.  It was fresh and different than what he was accustomed too, and he quickly grasped onto that.  “It was my first love,” said Rollins.  “I would rock out to cassette tapes of the Fresh Prince, Rick Ross, and Run-DMC.”

Lang’s performance background wasn’t in hip-hop, but in theater.  She graduated from Drake University with a teaching degree, and had done her student teaching in theater, but decided that it wasn’t the right job for her.

“One of the reasons why I shied away from a traditional job teaching high school theater is because a lot of the plays don’t speak to kids,” said Lang.  “Whenever I find a script or piece of text to use in the classroom, I make sure that the kids are going to be able to identify with it in some way.”

When Lang and Rollins met at Harding, they found that they both had similar teaching styles in performance and wanted to use that to help minority students.  “What’s most fulfilling for me is working with kids and getting to see them understand some of the negative expectations that society has of them, and showing them that they have the power to squash those expectations and prove people wrong about what minority kids are capable of,” said Lang.

Harding Middle School is 70 percent minority and over 90 percent free-and-reduced lunch.  The school has had the reputation of being one of the worst schools in Iowa because of its low benchmark test scores and disciplinary problems.

“Part of my interest in coming here was that there was so much talk about how this was the worst school in Iowa.  There was a lot of negative stigma,” said Rollins.  “I liked the challenge of that, and I also didn’t buy that negative hype.  I don’t like it when people say things like that, so I wanted to be a part of something to prove that idea wrong.”

The class has proved successful – for the benchmark pre-test, about 80 percent of the students did not meet the proficiency standards.  But once the post-test was taken, almost all of the students met the proficiency standards.

Lang and Rollins wanted to spread this success throughout the community, so they created Minorities on the Move, which is a two-week summer program that takes students to places where minorities have had both a positive and negative impact.  Last year, they took the students to the Jordan House, Iowa State University and Simpson College, the Fort Des Moines museum, and the Polk County Jail.

Many of their students from Minorities on the Move and the hip-hop class also participate in an event called Brave New Voices, which is an international team poetry festival held every summer by an organization called Youth Speaks in San Francisco.  Lang and Rollins created Movement 515, which is their version of Youth Speaks in Des Moines.  It is open to kids from all of the Des Moines public schools, and it aims to teach kids how to use their voices in a positive way through poetry.

“I think the greatest thing that’s come out of this is that performing and using their voice in a positive way is the cool thing to do,” said Lang.  “This is what we do at Harding now.  If you want to fit in, you write and perform and are involved in your community.”

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