One thing about urban education is we are always struck by what the students don’t know. Some teachers take it immediately to heart and quickly dismiss the students themselves—write them off in the first few weeks as lost cases and spend their days complaining about how they can’t read or write. Yet simultaneously these same teachers do nothing substantive to rectify the situation. Others keep putting in work, fight the good fight, but still hit the wall that always seems to exist forever between us and our students: The wall of ignorance.
I use the word “ignorant” with intention. Yes, it has connotative meanings that are generally negative. Yet the actual denotation is: “lacking knowledge or uneducated.” Our students know they are ignorant, yet no one is ever allowed to tell them that. Well…except maybe me.
As students enter my class for the first time this week, I am once again confronted by the same wall I always run up against, and as an English teacher I have to think of ways around it—or, as is more my style—through it. For me, it has to do with reading and writing, and especially literature. Recently I have been thinking about why students have such a hard time analyzing…anything. Poems, short stories, books—urban students really struggle with looking deeply into a text and gleaning any sort of meaning and thinking deeply about a subject and an author’s message.
Now the new Common Core Standards have completely given up on this notion. Literary Analysis is now a side note, almost non-existent as a writing genre. With the new push towards expository writing and research, analyzing literature is taking a back seat in the speeding, out of control car that is heading in the direction NCLB has steered it. This is a travesty to those of us who are writers, appreciate literature, and think that reading The Kite Runner is a better way to learn about Afghani culture than writing a research paper about Afghanistan.
But as I think about the first book I am about to teach, I feel a need to breach the idea about analysis, and how to show students what they are supposed to be looking for and how they are supposed to look. First, I think I need to show them something very important—that they are ignorant.
And I still don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s like what Paolo Friere says about the oppressed—their biggest problem is they don’t know they are oppressed. Our students are oppressed by a myriad of forces in their lives but have no schema about the illusory foot on the back of their necks.
So we show them the foot.
One of my most popular articles here at Teach 4 Real is my piece which slams the music of Lil’ Wayne and The Black Eyed Peas because I confront the same wall in their music—ignorance. I’ve read this article to many of my classes and find they love it. Sure, they love it because they giggle when witnessing my dramatic reading of Lil’ Wayne’s Lollipop song. But the more that I think about it I realize they love reading that article because they have never really thought about the simple fact I point out—their music is ignorant–and they have never had to analyze a lyric in their lives.
So maybe we should start there. What if we began with a text they know (activate prior knowledge), analyze it, and then use a new text and do the same thing. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But check this out. You give them the text of…I don’t know, who is the powerhouse of contemporary music? Jay-Z? Why not look at some lyrics from the recent July release of Rick Ross’ album. In it there is a collaboration track entitled “3 Kings” with Dr. Dre and Jay-Z; it is the latter rapper’s lyrics we’ll focus on for our lesson.
It’s just different, I know it feels different
I only love her if her eyes brown
Play this shit while you play around with my crown
King H-O, yall should know by now
If you don’t know
Millions on my wall in all my rooms
Niggas couldn’t fuck with my daughters room
Niggas couldn’t walk in my daughters socks
Banksy bitches, Basquiats
I ran through that buck 50, Live Nation fronted me
They working on another deal, they talking 250
I’m holding out for 3, 275 and I just might agree
Ex D-boy, used to park my Beemer
Now look at me I can park at my own Arena
I only love her if her weave new
I’m still a hood nigga, what you want me to do?
Been hoppin’ out the BM with your bm
Taking her places you can’t go with your per-diem
Screaming carpe diem until I’m a dead poet
Robin Williams shit, I deserve a Golden Globe
I take an Ace in the meanwhile
You aint gotta keep this, it’s just a freestyle
Fuck rap money, I made more off crates
Fuck show money, I spent that on drapes
Close the curtains, fuck boy out my face
I whip the coke, let the lawyer beat the case
Murder was the case that they gave me
I killed the Hermes store somebody save me
Stuntin’ to the max like wavy
Ooh shit, stuntin’ to the max I’m so wavy
Used to shop in TJ Maxx back in ’83
I don’t even know if it was open then
I aint know Oprah then
Had the Xl80 bike, loud motor
They be like, damn when I’m coming through
Had a grill in ’88
Ya’ll niggas is late
You got all that right?
I love this shit like my own daughter
And spray these niggas baby just like daddy taught ya
Young, it’s just different
Any analysis of Jay-Z’s lyrics would be an exercise in idiocy. Like almost all rap lyrics today, this song is about next-to-nothing. If you present these lyrics to your students and ask them to analyze it and tell you what it’s about, they will come up with five things. It is about the same five things all rappers rap about: Wealth, women, being a gangster from the ghetto, being better than “you” or imaginary haters, and drugs. If I asked a class of sophomores in high school to tell me what this song is about that’s what they’d say. If I asked Jay-Z what this song is about that’s what he’d say. While this song in particular is supposed to show the growth and maturity of Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Dr. Dre, it is really just a bunch of bragging. Nothing can hide the fact that this song has no real theme aside from the five standards of ignorance. So where do we go from here?
We force our students to see that they are oppressed.
To tell you the truth, if I was trying to show students how dumb their music is, I might not use Jay-Z. I’m actually a hip-hop fan, and he really is one of the best rappers out there. He has allusions to mythology and film and even incorporates latin. I’m not saying he’s sophisticated, but I would rather use him as an example of things like allusion or hyperbole in another lesson than showing my students why rap music sucks. There are way better ways to do that. Just use any Rick Ross verse from this album. But even with this piece you could drive them to the conclusion that rap is only about five things, and then ask them if they think life is about more than that.
And then give them a real piece of writing.
You are trying to bring them away from the ignorance they are surrounded by and lead them to some real writing. You are trying to educate. This is what we are referring to when we’re talking about creating engaging lessons for urban students. You need to connect it to their lives, we all know that, and you need to do it in a crazy, engaging, funny, meaningful way.
Here is another way I’ve done this lesson from a little different angle.
I listen to hip-hop music all the time. But when I slap Jay-Z during my commute home from work, it is because I don’t feel like thinking. I’ve been thinking all day and my brain needs a break. I know it doesn’t mean anything, but it sounds good, the beats are nice, and sometimes I just want to nod my head and berate society. But that’s the difference—I know the music is about nothing. Our students think the music is about life. That’s where we’ve got to show them differently.