Beats for books

Though hip hop has been criticized for promoting misogyny and materialism, and for negatively influencing today’s youth, educators and community volunteers are finding uses for hip hop as a means to empower youth and encourage literacy in and out of the classroom.

Schools in the U.S. have experimented with integrating hip hop into the curriculum. High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) started out in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1996 and has spread to both New York City and Los Angeles with another school about to open in Portland, Oregon. These schools centre their programs around musical production, with reward systems in place that prevent the students from using the studios unless they show good behaviour and complete their work.

While these recording arts high schools offer an alternative to many who have not been finding success in a traditional high school, educators question their unconventional approaches and their poor standardized test results. While still in their infancy, these schools have neither surpassed state averages nor those of neighbouring high schools with students in similar socio-economic standing. The question remains open about the benefits of bringing cultural practice into the classroom that students might be able to relate to, and whether its greatest use is inside or outside the classroom.  
In Montreal, an after-school program known as W.O.R.D. (Writing Our Rhymes Down) uses hip hop as part of a literacy initiative to supplement traditional classroom learning. They write on their web site: “We believe that the best way to engage marginalized youth is by allowing them to speak…. We promote positive hip hop culture via our dialogical approach; thus, we address negative media messages and the ways in which they may or may not inform and/or reflect the lives of our participants.”

Members of W.O.R.D. weren’t available for comment before press time.

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—Thomas Kim