Give Kids a Way to Poetry Through Hip-Hop

Why don’t young people today associate themselves with Shakespeare? Young writer Jason Reynolds shared some thoughts on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah , bluntly stating, “Young people are allergic to boredom.” He didn’t mean that Shakespeare is boring – this guy died over 400 years ago and his plays are still everywhere – but the way he is taught can be pretty dull. He invites teachers to use hip-hop, which children are already familiar with, as a gateway to literature.

“Teach comparative literature where you take Queen Latifa’sLadies First and Maya Angela’s Phenomenal Woman and show young people that this is nothing new,” Reynolds told Noah.

Reynolds’ newest book, The Long Way Down , is set in an elevator – a young black boy named Will sets out to avenge his brother’s murder. It is written entirely in verse. The book was nominated for the 2017 National Youth Literature Book Award, and John Legend intends to co-produce the film adaptation.

In a fantastic interview worth watching, Reynolds asks why aren’t we expanding on what we consider to be literature? As a poet who speaks genuinely to young people, Reynolds says that hip-hop “had the greatest influence on him.” As a child, rap music told him that “children like me exist.” He explains that hip-hop can be incorporated into modern curricula to show kids how we draw from the past:

I believe we really need to start evaluating what a literary cannon is and whether it should remain petrified and concrete as it is today. It’s stagnant. It’s static. Why not figure out how to expand this cannon to be diverse, to be old, to be young? Poetry should be Shakespeare’s sonnets, and it should be Queen Latifah. Teach comparative literature where you take Queen Latifa’s First Lady and Maya Angela’s Phenomenal Woman and show young people that this is nothing new. It’s all a continuum. We work according to tradition. Then they can see their place in what they read. … This is the hallway. … This is a springboard. They then build relationships not only with literature, but also with literacy. Then we start fixing the violence, we start fixing gangs and all that, once you realize that your life depends on your verbal relationships.

Alan Lawrence Sitomer, a Los Angeles teacher and author of Hip Hop Poetry, Classics, and High School Hip Hop , shares these examples of how to combine classic poetry with hip hop lyrics when teaching high school students:

Classic poem: “Am I not a woman?” Sojourner Trut. Combine it with: For Women by Taliba Kweli.

Classic Poem: “Harlem: A Deferred Dream” by Langston Hughes. Combine it with: “Juicy” pieces by Notorious BIG

Classic Poem: “If” by Rudyard Kipling Combine it with “How Much” by Zion I.

Classic Poem: “Don’t Go To This Good Night” by Dylan Thomas Pair it with: “I Against the World” by Tupac Shakur

Of course, this is a cliché – we imagine some “tough” teacher sitting with his back on a chair and breaking it – but the words on the page speak for themselves.


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