Remixing the traditional essay to empower students

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Nyree Clayton-Taylor
Nyree Clayton-Taylor

As a freshman in college, I remember being mesmerized by a young artists and repertoire executive named Sean “Puffy” Combs from Uptown Records. Sean “Puffy” Combs – or P. Diddy – re-introduced the art of the remix by using his understanding of nostalgic hip-hop beats with the pairings of smooth rhythm and blues samplings to build entirely new songs for a ’90s generation engrossed in hip hop.

While Puffy can take credit for reconstructing the remix, Obasi Shaw and A.D. Carson, two young African American scholars, can be credited with the modernizing and remixing of the traditional essay.

On Feb. 24, 2017, Carson defended his dissertation by using hip-hop. By opting out of the traditional thesis, Carson, a doctoral student from Clemson University, created a 34-track album entitled, “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions.” Using his love and knowledge of hip-hop, he created a body of information that transcended the long-established dissertation. By pairing spoken word, rap and beat-making to investigate the areas of identity, justice, economics, citizenship and language to communicate information, he was able to examine the validity of black voices by using his voice as an example.

As for Shaw, his album entitled “Liminal Minds” made comparisons between “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer with issues of racial identity that explored the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. This album, which he turned in as his final exam in May of 2017, was the first to be presented as a final thesis at Harvard University. Shaw wrote a 10-track album that demonstrated his learning on a personalized level.

What Carson and Shaw were able to create were beautiful, analytical examples of knowledge and I knew, after reading of their success, that I wanted to recreate this project. I was eager to begin and decided to work with some of my students who participated in the iRAP (Informational Reading through Artistic Performance) Summer Program. I wanted my students to create a body of work that was of the same caliber as Carson and Shaw’s, but translating the idea of a 10- to 34-track album to fit the needs of elementary, middle and high schoolers would be much harder than producing a traditional essay.

Right after Christmas Day, 10 students from the ages of 8 to 15 decided to give up part of their Christmas break and participate in a three-day intensive writing workshop. Knowing that Black History Month would be celebrated in a few months, I let my students research famous African American heroes, past and present. With only three full days of writing and practicing for studio time, students had to stay focused and commit to their hero, while also intertwining aspects of their personal lives that paralleled the lives of their hero.

Understanding that each student couldn’t produce his or her own personal album in three days, I showed students an example of a cypher and a type of hip-hop song called a posse cut. Christopher Emdin, a noted professor at Columbia University, describes a cypher as an informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers and/or breakdancers that perform in a circle taking turns. In the first cypher video I showed students they noticed that participants were in a semicircle and each person took turns to rap about their greatness.

After reflecting on the cypher video, we watched an example of a posse cut, which included a group of rappers rapping on the same topic to produce a recorded song. Using models of songs like “Self Destruction” by the Stop the Violence Movement and “We’re All in the Same Gang” by the West Coast Rap All-Stars, students reflected on the videos and noticed how a posse cut was a lot like a cypher, but it was not informal. We agreed that we would produce a posse cut of past and contemporary African American heroes. The list of heroes included:

  • Dorothy Dandridge – First African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award
  • Meek Mill – African American hip-hop artist who is fighting mass incarceration
  • Michelle Obama – First African American first lady of the United States
  • John Lewis – Congressman who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Lena Horne – African American actress who was a Civil Rights activist
  • Allen Iverson – A former basketball player who played in the NBA for 14 years
  • Stephanie Ready – First African American woman to coach in the NBA
  • Ava DuVernay – African American movie director
  • Isaac Murphy – African American jockey who won three Kentucky Derbies
  • Claudette Colvin – First African American woman who went to jail for refusing to give up her seat on a bus

Students read about their hero and produced a T-chart of information that included facts about their hero that correlated with themselves. After this process, students had to put the information into a format that rhymed and matched the beat of the beatbox and instrumental we were using. Using Shaw, Carson, Meek Mill and Drake as our exemplar texts, students edited, broke down syllables to match beats and used figurative writing to emulate a musical story that followed the format of the exemplars.

While the three days were stressful, my students worked hard. They supported each other by conferencing in writing circles. Every student, no matter their age, offered praised and constructive critiques to each rhyme each child presented. My husband, who was a signed artist to the rapper Heavy D, even stepped in to help by using his expertise as a songwriter to work one-on-one with each student. My parents also volunteered by offering their free time to rehearse students for studio time. After the three days, students went into the studio to record their Black History Cypher and also produced a video.

With the educational pendulum swinging toward a more personalized learning approach and culturally responsive teaching being a significant need in closing achievement gaps, allowing students to opt out of traditional educational mainstays is the only way to educate our students for the future. In the two weeks that we worked on this project, I was able to infuse technology, engineering, reading, fluency, writing, math, history, parent involvement, community support and real-life educational application to the real world.

During the three days, I learned that our students are calling out for learning encounters that disrupt conventional norms and provide experiences that extend beyond the walls of school buildings. As teachers and policy stakeholders, we must listen to their voices and be as inventive as Obasi Shaw and A.D. Carson. We hold the keys that can unlock opportunities to showcase their learning in new and advanced ways that will embolden our students to remix the world.

 

NyRee Clayton-Taylor is currently on sabbatical working with the Kentucky Department of Education until May. She has taught for 19 years and is a product of the Jefferson County school system. Clayton-Taylor graduated from Kentucky State University, Western University and received her Rank I from Bellarmine University. She is currently the 2019 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

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