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Perspective | Creating a third space through hip-hop

As classrooms across the country become increasingly diverse, the gap between the cultural and linguistic diversities of today’s students and the racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversities of the teacher workforce has become expansive. This reality poses a number of challenges with teaching and learning literacy, including how literacy is associated with race and class, and how deficit-oriented labels such as “at-risk” and “underperforming” are used to describe students of color from nondominant communities.

Researchers have found that low expectations from teachers and the lack of representation in school curricula sends a disempowering message to students of color that could potentially be internalized. However, researchers have also examined instances where students have actively resisted the oppressive practices they encounter in the classroom by creating their own separate niches and identities in nontraditional literacy spaces.

Creating a third space

Four years ago, I began my journey as a school music therapist with the purpose of connecting with and improving the educational experiences of children from nondominant communities. I focused much of my efforts on creating a third space in the classroom, which aided my students in the development of new understandings about themselves, the larger context around them, and the intersection between the two. 

The idea of scripts and counterscripts between my students and I was the catalyst to forming a third space in the classroom. These scripts included formal and informal interactions, which shifted the traditional social organization of learning that my students were used to. Additionally, the dichotomy between unofficial and official spaces in the classroom allowed my students the freedom to discuss, interrogate, and critique what counts as knowledge when engaging with academic texts which were part of their district-mandated curriculum.

Utilizing repertoires of practice

Hip-hop culture was a significant part of creating a new transformative spaces in the classroom with my students because of its relevance to their lives, their cultures, and their values. For my students, hip-hop acted as a mirror to their lives because of its ability to tap into their everyday experiences as well as illuminate their dreams and desires. Echoing the views of Paulo Friere and Henry Giroux, I knew that it was important that I acknowledged and validated the impact of hip-hop culture on their lives in their classroom environment as I assisted them in gaining critical consciousness within their school and community.

Through the lens of hip-hop, I encouraged my students to utilize their repertoires of practice, which included merging what they learned in the formal context of school with their range of practices outside of school. Hip-hop and its five elements –breakdancing, MC’ing, DJ’ing, graffiti, and knowledge of self — allowed for multiple modes of access and expertise for my students to draw from their own experiences to demonstrate their various capacities in the classroom.

Hip-hop as poetry

One particular music therapy intervention series I designed for my students was to insert hip-hop music as a poetry form into their language arts poetry unit. The goals and objectives for this intervention were for my students to employ their repertoires of practice to scaffold the critical and analytical skills that they already developed through being a part of hip-hop culture. Additionally, my desire was for my students to be able to transfer these skills onto the poetry outlined in the curriculum in order to critique the messages sent to them when generating their own interpretations of the text.

This particular intervention series emphasized the historical periods in which each poem was written in order for my students to understand how poetry can be interpreted as social commentary for that particular era. The Elizabethan era, the Romantic era, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movement, and the Post-Industrial Revolution were all covered alongside hip-hop music, which was situated in the post-industrial era. Inserting hip-hop music as a genre of poetry in tandem with the district-mandated genres allowed my students to draw from an art form that they were familiar with in order to critically analyze the social and political issues that were brought to light through the poetry of each era.

When I presented the poetry texts from the school curriculum along with a hip-hop text, I encouraged my students to interpret and identify common themes between the two historical and literary periods. For instance, when analyzing the poem “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes alongside the song “This is America” by Childish Gambino, my students were able to articulate the false promise of the American dream for many of the oppressed groups throughout American history. They also identified common themes of greed and domination that prevent some Americans from having access to the freedoms that America champions on the world stage.

Critical and dialogic perspectives

By drawing on the understanding of hip-hop music as being critical and dialogic, my time as a school music therapist informed me of the importance of considering my students’ perspectives when taking a critical stance. The dialogic nature of a third space in the classroom not only created a positionality for my students, but it also helped me situate myself as a co-collaborator when learning about and critiquing the social and political issues in our society.

In seeking to examine my students’ truths and their relation to their educational experiences, I learned that as educators, we must build upon our students’ experiences to help them to practice self-reflexivity as they grow to understand who they are as individuals and how they relate to the literary characters outlined in traditional school curricula. Additionally, we must provide a space to introduce hip-hop and other elements of popular culture in the classroom, which will ultimately create endless opportunities for students to make connections to standard literary texts while affirming their everyday lives.

It is time for educators to step out of the box and tap into the worlds of their students in order to equip them with tools they need to be critical thinkers inside and outside of the classroom.

Who’s ready to take that step?

Ja’Bria Barber

Ja’Bria Barber is a board certified music therapist who has worked as a school music therapist for all grade levels for the past four years. Barber is pursuing a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology at North Carolina State University. In addition to working as a school music therapist, she also works with older adults that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Her educational and career experiences have fueled her desire to improve the educational experiences of students from nondominant communities by creating a space for various forms of culturally relevant pedagogy in the classroom.