How Not to Teach Like a Hip-Hop Champion

Guest Blogger Dr. Emery Petchauer, Educational Thought Leaders Series, #1

Dr. Emery Petchauer

Dr. Emery Petchauer

The last Thursday of every month in Philadelphia is a community hip-hop event called The Gathering. There, for close to 20 years, teenagers and adults have participated in the expressions of hip-hop that thrive all around the world today, especially dance. More than any other element of hip-hop, b-boying (what is commercially known as breakdancing) is front-and-center at The Gathering, with young and not-so-young people aggressively and competitively dancing against one another. While living in Philadelphia, I was one of the DJs for this night and would frequently invite people to attend who were either practitioners of hip-hop or unfamiliar with it altogether. For folks in the latter category, it was an opportunity to see live and direct a fuller representation of hip-hop compared to what is most often on the radio and television.

One month, a friend unfamiliar with this kind of community hip-hop came to visit the event. Like many people, he had assumed that “breakdancing” was a relic of the 1980s, a temporary fad that can now be seen mostly at wedding receptions somewhere between the worm and funky chicken. During the event, as dancers battled against each other – aggressively throwing moves at one another – he seemed uneasy, standing far away from the cyphers that people had formed around the b-boys and b-girls. He left the event well before it ended.

While following up with him a bit later, he said he enjoyed the night (who doesn’t like to see people spinning on their heads?), but given the aggressiveness of the dance and dancers, he thought that a fight was sure to break out at any second, so he should leave. He also commented on how angry and disturbed many of the people must have been to be dancing as such.

His analysis, of course, could not be further from the truth. Despite the aggressive aesthetic of the dance – including dancers mimicking violent actions against one another – this characteristic says nothing about the temperament of the dancers. In fact, touching another dancer or initiating a physical encounter is viewed as a sign of weakness and a lack of control. In short, he was stuck at the surface when there was so much more happening underneath.

As an adult, the two spaces where I probably spend the most time are educational ones and hip-hop ones like The Gathering. Naturally, I’ve also spent a lot of time working to understand connections between the two. What is happening underneath the surface in hip-hop spaces — and even in peoples’ lives —  that should also be happening in school spaces? What can hip-hop show us about relational teaching and meaningful learning? Questions like these motivated Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Education Across the Curriculum. Often, people assume that the answers are succinct teaching tips that they can take away and use in their classrooms, that somehow the goal is to Teach Like a Champion in 49 easy hip-hop steps. For me, that’s not the point. Teaching for enduring understanding is a complex process in schools and in hip-hop. If we understand the deeper ideas from which practices develop – as abstract as they sometimes are – then we have a good foundation from which to teach.

Instead of surface-level quick tips, I’ve tried in my work to frame and make visible some of the aesthetics that are beneath the surface in hip-hop and have educational value: the kinds of things my friend missed during his visit to The Gathering. One of these is affective engagement, or feeling as a legitimate point of entry. Affect is at the center of every connection at The Gathering: feeling the music, feeling a dancer, feeling an emcee, feeling the vibe, feeling one another. If people aren’t feeling what’s going on, they’re going home.

So, what does it mean to create a classroom where affect is at the center of engagement? How can we feel a particular topic or dilemma? Questions like these motivate many of my pedagogical decisions. Recently, as an entry point to the topic of gender identity in the elementary classroom, I had my preservice teachers bring with them a toy that they could not live without when they were kids. We had everything from Bratz to Pokemon – and of course, Barbie’s convertible. Then we talked about these toys: many smiles and much laugher ensued. My point here was not to be cute. It was to stir-up a sense of nostalgia in the room, a type of throwback jump-off into the study of how everyday items inscribe notions of gender upon children.

This doesn’t mean that starting with kids’ toys in class is somehow inherently hip-hop, or that other folks couldn’t have come to this point from other sources. There are many routes to the same place. But, there are reasons why hip-hop culture has been taken-up, reflected, and refracted by communities on every inhabited continent. Affect is one of these reasons. There are many others that can improve teaching and learning if we understand what’s happening beneath the surface.

Emery Petchauer (@EmeryPetchauer) is assistant professor of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University. 

About the Educational Thought Leader Series: “Educational Thought Leaders” are people engaged in developing critical, innovative ideas and practices in education.  The aim of this series is to provide a space for Educational Thought Leaders to discuss their work and to foster dialog around the ideas and issues that they raise.

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