Region’s First Hip-Hop History and Culture Class Starting at Blair High School

Teacher hopes class will provide space to learn about issues students ‘live, see and talk about’

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In a video posted to YouTube, Kenneth Smith discusses the upcoming hip-hop history and culture class he will be teaching next year at Montgomery Blair High School.

YouTube

A vision to integrate hip-hop music and history lessons is putting a Silver Spring high school on the leading edge of an emerging teaching method that combines modern music and education.

Believed by school officials to be the first in the Washington region, the Montgomery County school board recently approved a hip-hop history and culture class at Montgomery Blair High School that will begin next school year.

The class, recommended for juniors and seniors, is intended to connect the music genre to societal issues students experience, according to Kenneth Smith, a social studies teacher, who proposed the class.

“Throughout my years of teaching, I’ve thrown in hip-hop every now and then to bring more students into the fold and get them interested in certain topics, so this idea has been in my spirit for a long time,” Smith said.

Hip-hop music surfaced in the 1970s in the Bronx in New York City, and quickly spread across the United States and the world. The genre was developed by inner-city African Americans and commonly consists of rhythmic music and rapping.

Registration for the semester-long class opens this week and based on feedback he’s received, Smith anticipates students will flock to sign up. If there’s widespread student interest, Smith will teach multiple sections of the class each day.

The class will incorporate lessons about issues ranging from women’s impact on the genre and how hip-hop developed across the nation to social justice and feminism. Students will be studying real-world issues, not spending the class period solely listening to rap music, Smith said.

With more than 3,200 students, Montgomery Blair has the highest enrollment in Montgomery County and is home to two magnet programs in communications arts and math, science and computer science.

Smith’s hopes that the class will bring together students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and academic skill levels to broaden their understanding of issues that otherwise would only be discussed in informal settings.

“When a student is walking in the hallway wearing their headphones I can tell by their body language if they’re listening to hip-hop,” Smith said. “It’s everywhere in the building except the classroom … and my hope is to provide a space to learn about the culture as an academic area of study that addresses the issues they live, see and talk about outside of the building but are worthy of discussion inside the classroom.”

Smith will track various data points throughout the course’s pilot year, write a curriculum and, if successful, the class will be made available to other county high schools.

More than 2,500 miles away in Pasadena, California, one of the few similar high school-level hip hop history classes has been taught since 2012.

Manuel Rustin implemented the class at John Muir High School and roughly 80 students sign up each year. Rustin’s class spans the entire academic year and has already gone through many of its growing pains.

Since Rustin began teaching his hip-hop class, a handful of schools across the country have followed suit but the concept remains most popular at the college level.

For example, the University of Maryland has a three-credit hip hop culture class in the African American Studies department. The class’s syllabus explores hip-hop’s impact on society, according to its description.

But aside from a recent connection with Smith, Rustin said he hasn’t met another high school teacher in charge of a hip-hop culture course.

A post on the National Association for the Education of Young Children website highlights the benefits of incorporating “instructional” rap and hip-hop music in childen’s learning environments. Doing so shows students their educators “value the whole child,” the post says.

The key to Rustin’s success, insight that he has passed along to Smith, has been giving students the freedom to mold relevant conversations to include their interests and experiences.

“Because it isn’t a class like English that’s taught in every school district, there’s not a lot of materials and resources available out there to reference, and there’s nobody in my area I can talk to about … if they’ve tried something,” Rustin said. “That means so much of it is trial and error and building with students.”

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