What Educators and Students Can Learn From Hip Hop

hip hop for kids

Educators are looking towards elements of hip hop for innovative and refreshing ways to meet students where they are.

This highly anticipated volume edited by Professors Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer brings together veteran and emerging scholars from a variety of fields to chart new territory for hip-hop based education. Innovative chapters unpack the theory and practice of hip-hop based education in science, social studies, college composition, teacher education, and other fields. Authors consider not only the curricular aspects of hip-hop but also how its deeper aesthetics such as improvisational freestyling and competitive battling can shape teaching and learning in both secondary and higher education classrooms.

The following chapter excerpt comes from “The Rap Cypher, the Battle, and Reality Pedagogy: Developing Communication and Argumentation in Urban Science Education” by Dr. Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum can be purchased at Amazon.



Through the descriptions of the rap and science battles earlier in this chapter, I have alluded to some of the similarities between hip-hop and science and discussed the possibilities for looking at the battle as a way to connect hip-hop youth to science. Here, I present another key component of hip-hop, explore its relationship to science, and unpack its potential for improving urban science education. This part of hip-hop is the rap cypher: the hip-hop ritual where people stand in a circle and those who rap take turns doing so until everyone who is present gets an opportunity to participate. In cyphers, some people rap, others provide background rhythms to be rapped to, and others support the rappers by providing feedback when they rhyme. During cyphers, the multifaceted nature of the cultural and verbal exchanges among participants leads to the building of communality among members of the cypher that is indicative of the positive attributes of hip-hop. As rappers take turns rapping and other participants enact their roles, members enact certain rules of engagement that are not formally stated but are clearly understood by all participants. In the cypher, these unwritten rules and established norms include subtle words and gestures that alert the person who is rapping that it is time to pass the verbal baton to another rapper, supportive noises made by listeners at certain parts of a rapper’s rhyme, and the filling in of words or phrases when a rapper is out of breath.

In certain cyphers, the exchange between rappers (who may not personally know one another prior to the cypher) is so seamless that the entire process appears rehearsed to people who are not familiar with the process. In most cyphers, the person who takes the turn from someone else will reference the previous person’s lines and begin rapping immediately after the previous person finishes. In these types of scenarios, the rhythm from handclaps or ambient noise produced by other participants continues without stopping and serves as a backdrop to more fluid exchanges among participants. In cyphers, rappers mix memorized lyrics, completely impromptu rhymes, fantasy, and descriptions of their realities to exchange lyrics and create the ideal amount of exchanges among their peers. In these cyphers, there are equal turns at talk, head nods by people who are present who aren’t rappers, cheers by participants when the rapper who is currently at the helm of the cypher says something profound, and a person or group of people providing the background music for the cypher. Although these examples come from the rap cypher, many of these norms and rules of engagement remain consistent in other types of hip-hop cyphers, such as dancing and deejaying.


Lessons from the Cypher

The first lesson from the cypher that I will discuss addresses the physical structure of the classroom. It is based on the fact that the cypher dictates participants be organized in a way that facilitates eye contact and has participants positioned just about equidistant from each other. Therefore, the ideal classroom should be structured in a way that allows students to be in close proximity to each other and to the teacher. The cypher teaches educators that in order to facilitate exchange among participants, the classroom has to be organized in a circle, and the teacher has to be positioned in a way that includes him or her as part of the classroom structure and not at the helm of the classroom. The cypher also informs educators about the need to structure the class in such a way that any student, at any given time, can have the floor while engaging in different activities that support the smooth functioning of the classroom. For example, there has to be the space within the classroom for a student to be working on a classroom assignment while another one is conducting a lab and another is doing research. This setup would be analogous to the cypher where a person is rapping, another is creating the beat that is being rapped to, and another is actively watching and providing subtle verbal or gestural supportive feedback to the rapper.

Another significant lesson for teaching that comes from the cypher is based on studies of rappers in cyphers. By studying the ways that rappers in cyphers interact with their peers and understanding the distinct use of language within the cypher, teachers can gain much information about how to interact with students and orchestrate communication among them. In cyphers, the rapper at the helm at any given time can be compared to the teacher. This person, at the moment when he or she is leading the cypher during a rap performance, often draws analogies from the immediate surroundings. In addition, the rapper consistently ensures that the general emotion during the cypher is positive by making references to the words and actions of other members of the cypher during his or her rap.

Finally, the pace and volume of the rap is rarely consistent. In order to draw cypher participants into the rap, the use of voice is significant, and the voice emphasis on lines that the rapper perceives to be memorable is distinct. Usually, a more animated voice indicates to listeners that they should pay closer attention to a particular part of a rap during a verse. In urban science classrooms, when the entire class must be structured in a way that maximizes the talents of all students in the classroom, it is useful for the teacher to engage in a similarly complex use of inflection and volume during a lesson.

Considering Reality Pedagogy

Unfortunately, in many urban schools that predominantly serve students of color, teachers rarely implement the types of instruction described above that foster argumentation and consider artifacts of hip-hop such as the cypher. In my research in these schools, the general perception of student participation and the type of practices that a “good student” should enact is skewed. Teachers of hip-hop youth perceive students to be actively involved, constructively participating, and behaving appropriately when they enact behaviors that, under normal circumstances in students’ out-of-school worlds, would indicate a lack of interest. For example, my ethnographic studies in urban classrooms show that in traditional urban science classes, students are commended for blindly following instructions outlined by the teacher, sitting quietly, and getting prescribed results to lab assignments. In other instances, students who do not talk much in the class and who spend the entire class period copying notes are generally considered by teachers to be well behaved while those who indicate a need or desire to be engaged (by using a lot of gestures and speaking loudly) are considered to be a distraction and thus reprimanded. I argue that viewing actions that normally indicate disinterest as active involvement or communication creates a terrible confusion for both the student and the teacher and limits the student’s ability to be fully involved in science. Students begin to perceive that the expected behavior in the classroom is to not question, to be quiet, and to be passive. Consequently, students and teachers rarely get to the point where fluid communication and argumentation becomes a classroom norm. With the absence of communication and argumentation, the achievement gaps in science will persist because students never get to the point where the subject matter becomes important enough to engage with in the same ways that they engage with information being delivered in rap music.

For students in urban science classrooms who are, for the most part, largely influenced by or immersed in hip-hop, the separation between their out-of-school and in-school worlds persists only because educators fail to recognize the connections between students’ cultural understandings and science. When the relationship between students and their teacher mirrors that of the power-wielders and the powerless, and when teachers position students’ experience-based understandings outside of science, students cannot be expected to have an interest in the discipline. Furthermore, when the rule-by-force ideology that dominates urban science teaching and the current ethos of “doing science work” dominates talking science and argumentation, a passion for science cannot be developed among urban youth. The work in this chapter provides avenues through which educators can begin implementing the new approaches to science education discussed above and finding new pathways though which science can be connected to hip-hop by exploring hip-hop youth realities.

This chapter excerpt appears in Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum by Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer. © 2013 Teachers College, Columbia University. To order, visit www.tcpress.com.

Photo: Flickr by – bobbi vie


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About Emery Petchauer

Dr. Emery Petchauer is assistant professor of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment and Higher Edutainment”. (Routledge)

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