Why the New York State Dept of Education Will Never Invite Me to Talk About Teaching

Why The NY State Department of Education Will Never Invite Me to Talk About Teaching

During the last two months, I have given lectures at three high schools on the multicultural roots of Bronx Hip Hop- the first to 600 students at Northwest Catholic High School near Hartford; the second to two special needs classes at Sheepshead Bay HS in Brooklyn; the last to 400 students at Trinity School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In each instance, I spoke about how immigration, migration, and the fusing of different cultural traditions shaped a seminal moment in American history in a community plagued by disinvestment, fires, and shutting down of youth programs in the schools and in the parks. The subject was serious one, yet in each instance, I not only was able to gain the complete attention of high school students I had never met before, I had them standing, cheering and participating in the presentation.

How did I do this? Some of this was due to familiar attributes such as passion for my material, confidence in public speaking, and ability to speak effectively before a large audience without consulting notes; but much of it was do to my use of music and music video to illustrate my major arguments and my encouragement of student participation in showcasing the skills I was highlighting. In all of my presentations, I called for student volunteers to create beats, whether through beat boxing or drumming on hard surfaces, to showcase their dance moves, and to perform original raps. The result of this was that a parties broke out in my presentation without detraction from the substantive content. The most moving example of this was in the special education class at Sheepshead Bay where students with disabilities, including some in wheelchairs, demonstrated all of the musical skills associated with hip hop with a joy and creativity that was literally mesmerizing. 

But what was most gratifying, in all three instances, was not just the individual skills displayed, but the community building. Students in all three groups cheered on those who showcase their talents, or asked questions of the lecturer. The teachers and administrators felt energized y what took place, and came up to me after the presentation with big smiles on their faces. I had managed to get young people normally reticent in large groups to become active participants in a learning community.

You would think that those seeing to improve public education might look to experiences like this for guidance in how to energize and improve school communities, but my approach contradicts the scripted, test driven pedagogy currently in fashion. My use of the arts in teaching history; my encouragement of student participation; my willingness to throw away lesson plans or scripts to promote community building and student creativity all make my approach seen inapplicable in a world of data driven instruction. 

So don’t expect me to get an invitation any time soon from the New York State Department of Education to talk to teachers, legislators, or the Board of Regents. They would much rather talk to someone like Joel Klein or Bill Gates who wants to replace teachers with computers.

Meanwhile, I will keep looking for new ways to bring my research to life, promote student creativity, and “rock the house” when I get in front of a class