Reading along with Ludacris, Nas
Workbooks use hip-hop to help students comprehend lessons
The message was direct in Helen B. Dana’s classroom: By the end of the class, the students would be able to properly use the vocabulary words found in Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” music video and President Barack Obama’s speech last January in New Hampshire.
Another message could be gleaned, however: With her unconventional methods, Dana, a special-education teacher at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, is not your typical educator.
She was using the nationally recognized H.E.L.P. — Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program — workbooks to assist struggling readers in comprehending text. On average, the students in Dana’s third-period class read at a third-grade level.
The H.E.L.P. books, used in public and private schools throughout Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., incorporate hip-hop lyrics from artists like Chicago’s Kanye West, New York’s Nas, and Atlanta’s Ludacris to aid students in relating to the school system’s curriculum.
Each workbook contains lyrics from whichever artist is on the cover. The workbooks also contain questions to check reading comprehension.
In Dana’s social studies class, for example, students learned about the African diamond trade, then used the lyrics from West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” to make the lessons more interesting.
“We all like hip-hop,” student Leah Barrantes said recently in Dana’s class.
“It helps us learn to read,” said Sina Afrakhteh, a 14-year-old freshman at Quince Orchard.
For Dashawn Herbertwilliam, a student in Dana’s third-period class, hip-hop is the music of her generation, so using H.E.L.P. makes reading more interesting, she said.
“Everybody can relate to it,” Herbertwilliam said. “Hip-hop is music everybody gets.”
The H.E.L.P. workbooks have been used in classrooms throughout the country since 2007, said Gabriel Benn, a hip-hop artist who created the books. Initially, the workbooks were in 20 schools nationwide; now, the materials are in 100 schools throughout the country, Benn said.
Benn, whose emcee name is “Asheru,” created the H.E.L.P. workbooks after interacting with high school students who struggled to read. Their inability to read could lead to other problems, he added, so he wanted to craft a program to which inner city youth could relate.
“I’ve learned so much from hip-hop,” Benn said. “There’s really no reason why anyone should say ‘no’ beside the words ‘hip-hop.’”
Students who have used the workbooks have made strides, according to an analysis of the H.E.L.P. workbooks provided by Benn.
For instance, special-needs students with specialized education plans met their individual goals 90 percent of the time, the data show. Those goals included editing, using analytical thinking skills and writing grammatically correct sentences.
At Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., for example, each 10th-grader last year used a H.E.L.P. workbook as a daily, 15-minute warm-up. Their progress was measured using scores on standardized tests.
In 2007, some 57 percent of Ballou’s 10th-graders scored “below basic” — the lowest level — on reading tests. A year later, just 19 percent scored “below basic,” the data show.
The use of hip-hop in the classroom shows students “there is more to learning than having to pick up Shakespeare or any other curriculum-based books,” Dana said. “They can be successful in reading, even if it’s in short excerpts.”
But while Quince Orchard High School uses H.E.L.P., other schools have discontinued its use. John F. Kennedy High School employed the program for two years, but is not using it this year, as the teacher who was instrumental in bringing the program to the school is no longer there, Principal Thomas Anderson said.
“We got back to the basic things that have been used before,” he said.
Still, the H.E.L.P. program had a great impact on students at the Silver Spring school last year, said Nicole P. Newman, a resource teacher at Kennedy.
She used a workbook with verses from “The Corner” by Common, an artist from Chicago. The song is about growing up and surviving in the inner city. Newman said she used it in a class of black males to teach them about figurative language and imagery.
“It’s all about keeping your finger on the pulse” of the students, Newman said. With hip-hop music, “you’re taking something that’s rich and relevant to all populations when it’s appropriate.”
More teachers throughout the nation are using hip-hop lyrics in their instruction, said Alan Lawrence Sitomer, California’s Teacher of the Year in 2007, who has written about the use of hip-hop in classrooms.
“Hip-hop is sweeping across the country,” he said. “It’s been an avenue I could use to elevate student performance. Education has to do a better job of meeting students where they are to be relevant to students today.”
At The Ridge School of Montgomery County, located in Rockville, teacher Cristina Zacariaz uses the H.E.L.P. materials to calm her students. Last school year, for instance, the private school teacher used workbooks with verses from hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill to help her students understand text.
Initially, the class remained quiet while she taught the concepts. Then, during class assignments, she would play hip-hop music softly in the background to keep her students interested.
“It would seem more laid back, even though they were learning English concepts,” Zacariaz said. “It works wonders.”