James: It’s is a programme that trains middle school teachers and high school students to use our cultured sponsored strategies and hip-hop music and process drama to boost student achievement in English Language Arts, world history and US history.
The PIE: Tell me about your backgrounds. Are they in education?
James: When I left university I was an accountant for about three months, then I became a garbage man, which I liked until I found a dead body then I didn’t want to do that again. So I started taking acting classes at Second City, in Chicago.
The way I learned Chinese was very mathematical and formulaic, but the way that I taught it was a way that was much more playful and linguistic
I pursued my Master’s in Fine Arts in acting and acted for many years. When I wasn’t working as an actor I was doing teaching arts work which means that you go into a classroom four or five times a year and just use the arts to teach either arts aestheticism or an academic subject.
I began to love it and I started turning down work and auditions to do it and then became the arts educator I am now. While studying arts education I also became a professor at NYU.
Jamel: I am a rapper, multimedia artist, organiser of the Stop Mass Incarceration network and programme manager for Fresh Prep, which is our high school test prep programme that’s a part of Fresh Education. After my undergrad I did a Fulbright research project on hip-hop in Beijing. I was living in Beijing, sleeping on couches of rappers, video artists and DJs and really looking at the application of hip-hop as a research method for sociological research. I put together multimedia-ography after that and moved to New York to start looking for opportunities to apply what I had learned.
I taught Mandarin at a school in New York in different capacities but the process by which I was doing that used hip-hop as a central pedagogical method. The way I learned Chinese was very mathematical and formulaic, but the way that I taught it was a way that was much more playful and linguistic.
I would create songs and visual songs for the classroom and students would make music videos as assessment. I came on board with Fresh Prep in 2012 as a teaching artist. I found it holistic and frankly did not believe that there was such a position because that’s what I had been doing on my own.
The PIE: Who are your creating the content for?
James: We are working with Title I schools, which in the United States means that 90% of students have free or reduced lunch, they’re all black or brown and that their parents come from places where English is not their first language and at home they don’t speak English.
90% of our students have free or reduced lunch, their parents come from places where English is not their first language and so at home they don’t speak English
In Washington Heights, people speak Spanish, in East New York people are Nigerian, Bengali, West Indian, Asian and from other parts of the African diaspora. So when we come in we are teaching the academic content that is new to them. We really try to boost first the growth mindset, social emotional learning, make sure that they understand that they are not lesser because they don’t speak English. It is an asset that they are bilingual and many of their educators are not and they will have a foot ahead of most of the people in the world.
We work on that for a while and then we look at that in the content, we tie that into their culture. We have schools in east New York where the students are mostly from Bangladesh, we brought in resources from Bangladesh, famous Bollywood actors and then tie that into academic curriculum and now those students who spoke no English in October are speaking English, and rapping and performing in English on stage at the Apollo Theatre in New York City in the end of year project.
The PIE: How are they new arrivals? Are they undocumented students?
Jamel: Some are undocumented or what we call SIL students, students that are severely interrupted learning. These are students that may have been moved or have moved or fled from their home countries and so they may have been in the equivalent of middle school in their own countries and then have had to stop or interrupt their learning and then they pick it back up in high school. So we work with a lot of SIL students, a lot of English language learners, some students are documented, some are not documented.
We actually have to make real considerations and adaptations to be able to reach that population while at the same time the base that we are starting off of, of youth culture, of cultural responsive pedagogy, of acknowledging the experiences of students, that’s the one the thing that is uniform across any site we go in. And then whether the students are international, bilingual or students that are new arrivals– there are specific considerations we have to make to be able to adapt with that group.
The PIE: How many teaching staff do you have?
We have had schools where 95% of students pass the exam, which is just unheard of
James: 20-25 teachers.
The PIE: And how does it work?
James: For middle school they go in two to three times a week from October to the end of May. For the high school programme we work eight weeks prior to their standardised exams, five days a week, so it is their class. The exams are January, June and August so for January we start in November, for June we start in April and then August is July, summer school.
Students in middle school and high school also have to take a English Language Arts test in English about English literature, so what happens is you have students coming from all over the world and they arrive in the United States and they have to take this test to graduate from middle school to high school and from high school to get their diploma.
The PIE: And do students who in your programme perform better on these exams than their peers who aren’t?
Jamel: The average in New York City for the global history exam for instance is a 45% pass rate; we routinely get 65% or above. We have had years that have broached or reached the 70th percentile and we have had schools where 95% of those students pass the exam, which is just unheard of. And these are students who had taken it before and failed it. We have seen a lot of results on both the impact side of student performance and results on the teacher transformation side.
The PIE: Do you work with teachers in the schools as well? Get them on board?
James: Yes, that is part of our programme, that the teachers have to be on board and that they implement the programmes when we are not there. A veteran teacher who had been teaching for 10 years said ‘I never thought I could do this until you guys came in and now that’s all I do’. That is not unusual, a lot of our teachers say that.
Whether you listen to rap or punk or metal, if you are talking about the basis of international youth culture, it is hip-hop
The PIE: Where do you think hip-hop and the values of multiculturalism meet?
James: Hip-hop is the most listened to music around the world, more so than rock and roll, country, pop. People listen to hip-hop music and hip-hop is a culture and all people acknowledge that culture. It’s not really about the music it is about the culture and that is where culturalism comes in, cultural infusion.
Jamel: You know about the fall of Iggy Azalea, now let’s learn about the fall of the Roman Empire. A lot of things are transferable. John Robinson, who is one of our teaching artists but is also an established musician and just celebrated 20 years in the music business–a guy I grew up listening to– he says and acknowledges if we are looking at global youth culture, hip-hop really forms the foundation and basis of it. Kids listen to all kinds of things, right? Whether you listen to rap or punk or metal, if you are talking about the basis of international youth culture, it is hip-hop.
It forms the basis of an international youth culture in a way that now the internet and social and mobile media has really accelerated. Before it was CDs, bootleg DVDs and these type of things: whatever you could get in the country that you are in. But now with internet access and broadband opening up, you really have a thing where there is a universal global culture that is rooted in hip-hop and rap and the internet.
The PIE: You said you mostly do English Language Arts, global history, humanities. Any plans to expand it out to other subject areas?
We really want to see expansion of a lot of our assets in a way that they can directly reach people that need them
James: People ask about math and we are interested in that. Maths and science. And I think that now we have a better understanding and a stronger team, we can venture into that realm. I started as an accountant so math is close to me, but it is about figuring it out and how we are going to apply those same strategies to different subjects, which is not that big of a jump.
The PIE: Looking to the future, how would you guys ideally see your programme developing over the next five years?
James: Over the next five years we will be in more schools, because an important component of our programme is that we are actually working with students and teachers. Technology is not the answer, you really need person to person interactions, so working in more schools, working with more people in more places and also developing more assets for parents and families to use too.
Jamel: There are really three distinct tracks we are working on: direct service and working with target population, transforming teaching and learning while working with teachers in particular, and through professional development, working with school districts like the other half of our team out in LA.
Then developing open source materials that are free to access for anyone globally. We really want to see expansion of a lot of our assets in a way that they can directly reach people that need them. We see this and we know it to be what School House Rock was 20-30 years ago, to be big on a level of that kind of model. We see the potential for it and that’s where we see it in five years: truly transformative in teaching and learning.