An education through hip hop

“You’re never going to reach the kids if you don’t speak their language.”

This is the guiding principle that drives UNI’s Hip Hop Literacy Summer School.

The eight-week program, first started last summer by Shuaib Meacham, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, uses hip hop to connect literacy with popular culture for which young people have a passion.

Students performing on stage at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center

“For teachers, it’s not about knowing hip hop,” said Meacham. “It’s about seeing the potential of the kids, seeing the talent, and just focusing in on that and bringing it out."

Around 30 Waterloo Community School District students from grades 5-8 participated.

Students from the UNI College of Education served as the primary instructors. Few of them were well versed in the art of hip hop, but that was not a concern for Meacham.

“For teachers, it’s not about knowing hip hop,” said Meacham. “It’s about seeing the potential of the kids, seeing the talent, and just focusing in on that and bringing it out.

“And once it comes out, it’s really extraordinary.”

Participants were divided up into groups of eight to ten students. Each week, the students would receive a different writing prompt, each one a topical issue related to young people. The instructors were expected to facilitate brainstorming and keep the students on task.

James Hansen, a senior English teaching major and an instructor for the program, saw firsthand how the students were able to apply actual literary devices to their music.

“We had a lesson where we taught metaphors,” Hansen said. “One of my students wrote an entire verse that was a metaphor about a penny versus a dollar. It was about self worth and hard work and how you can start out as a penny and with hard work and dedication you can become a dollar, which is success and making it and all the things like that.”

The participants were then able perform their own musical compositions in an actual recording studio. For some of the more reserved students, it offered a much-needed confidence boost. It was also a humbling experience for some more in need of a reality check.

Michelle Powers, an elementary education major, recalled one such instance.

“He was like, ‘I don’t need to work hard. I’m just going to go in there, record and rap, and I’m not going to practice.’ Then he kind of choked in one of the recording studio sessions and that week he was faithful in writing, faithful in practicing, and had his rap memorized,” Powers said.

The instructors also found that they were not alone in their efforts to encourage the kids to open up, as it didn’t take long for the students to start supporting one another.

“There was a lot of peer encouragement,” said Jessica Bohnstengel, a senior elementary education major. “My group, they didn’t want to share out loud sometimes. We would sit around a table, and I would say, ‘You have to share, or else you’re not going to get to the recording studio, because you have to say it out loud to be able to do that.’ So they would encourage each other and they would keep each other focused.”

The program not only represented a collaboration between UNI and the Waterloo Community School District, but also connected with a number of different programs from across campus.

Matthew Wilson, instructor of marketing, was invited to speak to the participants about marketing, specifically social media and the importance of developing content.

The UNI Textiles and Apparels (TAPP) program, with the cooperation of Annette Lynch, director for the School of Applied Human Sciences; Mitchell Strauss, professor of textiles and apparels; and Sharon Mord, instructor of textiles and apparels, collaborated with the summer school program for a week-long Hip Hop Fashion STEM Day Camp.

Camp participants spent a week exploring how to create a brand, design and print patterns in state-of-the-art industry software and equipment, and professionally present a concept.

The camp also partnered with Target Corporation as part of a recruitment initiative to reach more diverse talent for their product development positions. Participants spent a day at Target headquarters in Minneapolis to perform their original hip hop compositions and present their brands to a crowd of Target presidents and professionals.

The Hip Hop Literacy Summer School, which is expected to return for next summer, culminated in a performance at the Waterloo RiverLoop Amphitheatre. The participants’ families were able to attend and see their children perform. There were even “dance breaks” during the performance where a crowd of people would come on stage and dance with the kids.

“For Waterloo to step up and put something together like that was really extraordinary. You have people from all different backgrounds coming together to celebrate the kids,” Meacham said.

“To me, it was a shining moment for Waterloo.”