From Isolation to Transformation: A Story about the Power of Using Hip hop based education and SEL in Schools.

Back in 2005, I had recently graduated from college at UW-Madison, where I created my own major entitled: Social Change, Youth Culture and the Arts, and I was looking to put my education into practice. I noticed that the media was constantly writing articles blaming youth and their families for the negativity and violence that was going on in the public schools in Madison. What I began to realize with further investigation was that there was an over representation of youth of color in special education classes in Madison, a reality not just taking place in the mid-west but throughout the nation as well. With more specific focus on Madison schools I saw a dichotomy, because these same schools that were winning national awards for sending white kids to ivy league schools, had also 50% drop out rates for black and latino youth (primarily young men). Furthermore, we learned that this trend for college graduation was 8% for students from low social economic status (SES) and 80% for students from a higher (SES). We also realized that schools without relevantly engaging these realities, and treating youth as liabilities, were not helping youth to succeed academically or in life.

We decided to get involved and take different approach, and influenced by the fields of positive youth development, culturally relevant pedagogy, we decided to create a curriculum that was strength based, relevant, and centered around empowering youth voice. The curriculum and lesson plans took us several months to create, and upon completion we approached the superintendent at Madison schools to talk about piloting this program. What we learned was that the crisis in Madison schools created an opportunity for us to pilot our program, because the district was out of ideas of what to do to mend the problems and public humiliation it was receiving from local media sources. We were asked to pilot our program at a middle school that was having some of the most challenges. We met with the principals and the staff and quickly identified the classes that were causing the most trouble. Meeting the class confirmed our hypothesis: youth of color were being warehoused and controlled so they would not “act out”. This method had the exact opposite result, in that the kids felt dehumanized and silenced, and their acting out was their feeble attempt to being heard, but instead of listening, it caused more trauma and isolation for the youth specifically.

We kicked off our program with a Hip-hop performance and inspirational talk for the entire school. We told informed students that we were about to do a leadership, relationship, and citizenship curriculum with a select few classes and that the next time we were going to see the entire school, that some of the students would be performing with us. The students were all excited, and when we arrived the next week to the four classes where the youth were being warehoused and both the students and the staff were elated. We informed the students that we knew they were leaders in the school, and that we wanted to help them realize their potential and become elements of positive change for the community. We started doing the curriculum focusing on taking off negative labels put on by society and redefining our identities from what the media portrays through music video’s. We did workshops dealing with grief and frustration, helping youth to tell their stories through art. We helped youth visualize their own funerals in the future, and asked them to write about what they wanted to be remembered for.

A memorable moment was when one of the students, deemed the worst student in the school by teachers and administrators, said he wanted to die making a good name for his family and doing something to help the community. Once this piece was shared, both the students and the staff began to treat him differently, instead of being seen as a problem, he was being seen as a solution. This treatment further helped him to start acting like he was part of the solution, and on occasion where he was about to act up, one of the teachers would remind him of his legacy and if he was sure he wanted to make that negative decision. Other youth labeled “at-risk” had similar experiences that allowed them to see themselves and each other in a different light. Another memorable moment was when we were doing a lesson on grief and one of the teachers shared a poem about losing her father, she and the entire class were in tears when share finished sharing your piece. It communicated a few things, first that this was a safe place, and secondly that students’ experiences were valuable and would be honored if they shared. Youth began to get open about what they had been through and we could see changes in attitudes towards the teachers, the school, and each other.

By week 5 we decided to start supplementing the in class work with some workshops after school focusing on the arts and elements of Hip-hop. Youth were given room to explore their creative sides through movement, music, and poetry. Youth began to share their own narratives in ways that often countered what society was saying about them. For example, instead of boasting about material riches and “bling-bling” the young men wrote a song called “Soul Bling” where they boasted about the internal things that made them bling. Other youth did a breaking (breakdancing) routine that started out looking like the youth were going to fight and then instead of fighting, it went into a whole battle routine. Other youth shared poems about their life and experiences transferring to a new state and the challenges of starting at a new school.

Finally the time came where the youth had a chance to perform for the whole school and the community was invited as well. The young man who had previously wrote about leaving a legacy, was so excited because his dad had just been released from prison, and was in attendance. The youth with the support of the mentors and staff performed their extremely powerful and expressive pieces for everyone. By the end of the event, both parents and teachers were crying. We had teachers coming up to us saying, “I would never image that some of these students could be given a microphone and actually say something positive”. But the real test came after the performance when some of the other students, jealous by the attention this group was getting from some girls, challenged one of the students and pushed him into some lockers. Now normally, this student would without a doubt retaliate and it would have become a full blown fight. The student stopped, clenched his fists and you could see he was thinking about what to do, then the assistant principal told the youth man, “hey Darell, don’t forget to soul bling”. Consequently the young man unclenched his fists and walked away, and we all started to breathe.

Now from an experience level, this was all amazing, but we knew the real test of the effectiveness of this program was going to be the data. The school collected records of the students G.P.A’s, their attendance, and behavior issues from before the program started and again after the program concluded. What we saw was astonishing, the four classes of youth who had been previously warehoused, had cumulatively raised their G.P.A’s by half a point, and the youth who were causing the most trouble in the school previously had raised their G.P.A’s a full point in ten weeks! Moreover, we saw that the students were attending school more often and had fewer behavioral issues. Upon receiving this analysis from the school administrators we took this data to the Superintendent and Chief of Staff of Madison Public Schools. They were amazed to see the results and called a town hall meeting for all of the middle schools in the district.

What was amazing was that once the youth caught wind of the town hall meeting about the program, they wanted to be there and represent their own voices and experience. What started out as being pretty dry with data, became quickly more activating when the youth began to tell the stories behind the data. Explaining, that they had more hope now , and could see how school was important because now they had a vision of what they wanted to do in the future. We were all amazed by how articulate the youth were, and so were all of the administrators and principals in attendance. That was the push we needed to go district wide with the curriculum. What we learned however, is that you can’t put a changed person into an unchanged environment and see change be sustained. Seeing this themselves, the teachers asked us if we would train them in the pedagogy and philosophy of the curriculum. This is when we also realized that we could impact youth directly and impact a life or we could impact teachers and impact a generation. We have continued in this work doing both. Now the curriculum is operating in 7 different cities.

Currently with an opportunity to reach 1 million youth through the Unreasonable Institute, we have an opportunity to work with educators to make an effective and sustainable change in the system of education. We are now one of 50 organizations from around the world with a chance to receive world class mentorship and a potential for funding from Google, HP and 200 other organizations. The first 25 organizations to raise $10,000 will win this race and gain this opportunity. If you have a heart for education and the empowerment of youth please check out our profile online and donate today!

You will also see more up to date work with youth on the west side of Chicago on this site as well, enjoy!


About goodlifealliance

This blog is dedicated to the engagement, empowerment, and equipping of young adults who are using the arts to create change in both themselves and the world. It is connected to a global network of cultural change agents that are using the arts, primarily hiphop, to name the world and in doing so also changing it. Key topics include Hiphop Culture, Liberation Education, Social and Emotional Learning, Social Justice, Hiphop as a movement, and Spirituality. It is authored by Roberto Rivera, Hiphop artist, educator, and author of educational curricula such as Good Life and Fulfill The Dream. Roberto speaks publicly around the nation on issues covered in this blog.
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