Hiphoped: Insights and lightbulbs from the ‘Original Remix’ seminar

Original Remix: Some insights and lightbulbs

 

In no particular order, and with scattergun reference to a range of speakers who presented on the day:

 

Decolonisation of the mind

It was a shake of the shoulders to hear that only a few short decades ago, initial teacher training courses would actively seek to ‘decolonise’ mindsets before sending wide-eyed new educationalists into the classroom. We discussed the now lost intention of ITT of old to delineate the socio-cultural contexts framing education with a view to perhaps dismantling them, for the benefit of students. Now, with such rapid routes into teaching and very little thinking time before hitting the chalk face, the moment of reflection in which teachers can challenge the paradigms steering their professional existence has been diminished, almost to nil.

 

Questions:

  • Are we even aware of the colonial bent affecting our contemporary thinking?

 

Collective memory, collective accountability

At one point someone raised the point that in this digital age we have a very visible, very updatable forum for shared memory and accountability via social media channels such as YouTube (particularly the comments) and twitter. The relevance? That new forms of expression are held to account with a scrutiny and immediacy that we, as a species, have not experienced to date. This got me thinking. So much of what we study has been cauterised and shaped and managed and moulded into a solidified history that purports to be objectively ‘true’, that it goes unchallenged. The digital age has revolutionised this, inasfar as cultural artefacts are scrutinised, and criticised with an existing record in a democratised sphere.

 

Questions:

  • Do we challenge pre-modern art in this way?
  • Who is (or was) the critical community for canonical works? (If YouTube is the critical community for modern popular works, for example)

 

Being porous vs being shrink wrapped

The curriculum samples from a narrow field of thought, values and ideals and suffers from confirmation bias over time. This means that students become ‘shrink wrapped’, hermetically sealed from new ways of thinking about old things, or new things entirely. Even the existence of a curriculum that implicitly suggests that the best of all there is is what has been selected and studied is deeply problematic. Educators have a responsibility to encourage porous students who are receptive to new ideas and challenging thought, otherwise we risk confirming the confirmed rather than encouraging genuine insight.

 

Questions:

  • How can we make a very shrink wrapped curriculum an opportunity for permeability, when the pressures are to close the conversation rather than open it up?

 

Neoliberal forces in education

Education is being commodified with increasing frequency. Just consider the unending stream of bumf hitting heads of departments’ pigeon holes, selling educational solutions at a price. During my own prevention I offered the idea that we ‘dance to a neoliberal groove’, by which I mean that the purpose of formal education is still to satisfy capitalist urges. Get kids the skills and knowledge they need to prosper, or prop a system that benefits others. This perspective has bled into the delivery of education itself, with private companies such as Ark and Harris being given the remit to establish schools out of proven business models. Where pedagogic integrity sits in all this is open for debate.

 

The power of context

Linked to above. Being aware of the paradigm in which you operate is key to having any sense of ownership over your actions. Neoliberalism is one example, but other huge contextual forces include Colonialism, Capitalism, Liberalism and Masculinity. Some good, some problematic, some not so good, some deeply dangerous. It’s very simple: our contexts can influence our decisions in the way a riverbed dictates the water’s flow of travel. (A metaphor that Guy Claxton offered in a recent conversation I had). Once we are aware of conext, we are in a position to critique it. Summarised neatly in the bullet points below, as crafted by one of the speakers on the day:

 

  • Map the terrain
  • Break it down
  • Find areas for innovation
  • Either say something new, or say something old in a new way
  • Compare and critique

 

The educational landscape must be interrogated in this manner to avoid blind reinforcement of ideas we didn’t create in the first place. In my talk, I referenced Hirsch as a huge influence on our educational ideas, with the whole ‘knowledge as power’ approach steering our educational drive.

 

Sampling vs ‘new languages’

When notoriously political artist Ai Wei Wei used mangled iron rods to make comment on the state’s attitude to natural disaster and tragic loss of life, he spoke to audiences in a new unfamiliar language, offering cryptic, elusive codes that created dissonance and asked for new thinking. Saying something in the same way it has been said before offers recognisability and ease of understanding, but this can be at the expense of useful frictions.

 

Questions:

  • As educators, which ‘languages’ have we been given?
  • How can we create useful dissonance and friction for students to interrogate received knowledge (steered by aforementioned contexts)?

 

The destructive power of the single story

It’s nothing new that the curriculum tells a singular, predominantly monochrome, heavily gendered story, but seeing the texts that constitute the KS3 and 4 curriculum in black and white was a cold reminder of Dead White Man model of literary education that we continue to run. More illuminating was the discussion surrounding the Enlightenment. An argument proposed was that this period of ‘enlightened’ thinking was actually born from a need to inoculate certain cultural ideals into a generation of privileged elite who were poised to go globe-trotting – an endeavour that risks irreparable cultural damage. The result? Cultural ideals define what is considered important, confirmed and reconfirmed every time we dust off the canon and turn pages on ‘the classics’.

 

For educators, especially ones entering a scholarly heritage, it is imperative to stop confusing intellectual identity with cultural elite. Here, I was introduced to the work of Lisa Jardine, who has interrogated the Renaissance and asked questions of how this period reflected hierarchies in status and control.

 

Questions:

  • Whose story are we telling?
  • Are there any tokenistic nods to diversity? What do they suggest about the single story?

 

Progression reconsidered

There’s an intimidatingly long German word I have never come across before that will forever affect my attitude towards progressivism in education. Reformpadagogik.

As educators, we need to be hyper-sensitive to perceived societal and cultural needs, specifically the gaps between these needs and existing arrangements. In short, if the curriculum is not fit for actual purposes, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

 

Questions:

  • Is it even possible to craft a meaningful and apt curriculum without first listing societal and cultural needs? (And regularly reconsidering any conclusions reached)

 

Re-cycling

I loved this definition, complete with an all-important hyphen. Western educational systems are guilty of returning to the same cycles of thought that promote the same hieracrchal structures. This re-cycling can confirm problematic hierarchies. The irony is that many of the most revered thinkers in popular English intellectualism actively break the cycle and operate in slippage and code switching, eg: Shakespeare, Stephen Fry, Monty Python.

 

 

Knowing your samples is key

For depth and integrity. Knowledge of the original contexts for a particular idea, thought or artefact is as important as appreciation of that idea, though or artefact. Not only because you might miss some of the depth linked to the original source material, but because you will not be aware of what has been lost. Seeing examples of poor artistic appropriation / theft in which nuance and meaning ins lost highlighted the danger of wholesale theft. Meanwhile, the risk of pastiche that comes from sampling without deliberation and intent (eg: Justin Bieber making Dancehall vs Rihanna making Dancehall) can lead to meaningless work that asks no questions and serves no purpose. For educators, the lesson is clear: we must know where our assumptions and ideologies come from, because chances are they are rooted in sources of old.

 

When done properly, sampling can bring an idea back into relevance or celebrate the original, confirming its worth in a contemporary context. Remixing is celebratory and disrespectful in equal measure, but deliberate remix and sample work is rooted in integrity.

 

Questions:

  • How can we have integrity of we don’t interrogate the roots of our ideals, values and assumptions?

 

 

To conclude, I’m going to sample a line from Spider-Man folklore (that no doubt has been inspired from somewhere else along the line)

 

‘With great sampling comes great responsibility’

 

There were no easy answers or clean solutions to the ethos of sampling, and as you can see from my ramblings above, we really did dance across modern history. Debates raged on whether or not and why Kanye West might have sampled ‘Strange Fruit’ to riff on his personal tribulations and relationship issues, and consensus was not reached. But that’s the point. Sampling and intertextual play is an invitation to friction, where context bubbles to the surface in the debate over artistic intent and ideological integrity.

Taking The Safe

  
Four men:
A combined age of 270-odd.
Where’s my medication?
I’m taking my dog.

Don’t fall asleep at the-
Zzzzz
You just did. We’ll meet at the pub.
It’s gonna be big.

No messing-
Nowadays they’ve got CBTV.
CC.
Alright. Just listen to me.

In with a drill. The wires’ll trip.
Your hip up to this?
Ha ha.
Watch your lip.

No masks. No guns.
We’re taking the safe.
(I’ll scarf up, in case)
They won’t see your face.

It’ll be just like-
Shh-
What did you say? Who’s that? A guard?
Let’s give him away.

Lovely. He’s gone.
Now get through the hole.
(Chuckle) Remember when-
Not now. Go.

Dunnit. Well played.
Now keep off the box.
Um. Channel 1. Have a look.
Watch.

No comment
No comment
No questions. Don’t ask.
“Three men, with a combined age of-”
Guilty, as charged.

-UF

I Always Deal In Absolutes

-Beat-
I always deal in absolutes.
Actually,
I never do.
Actually,
The attribute I tend towards is lassitude:
Tired of my vagaries in attitude,
From plateau up to latitude,
Flipping like a mattress
And it’s cloudy at this altitude –
Hence the hazy attitude –
Call it crazy lazy shady vague or acrobatic,
Who’s immune to polar absolutes?
Pole to pole and back a few
Moments later.
-Beat-
I always deal in absolutes.

-U

Equation

Waiting for notifications,
Like watching yourself ageing,
Is making a slow cage out of your own anticipation,
Avalanche awaiting,
Helicopter patient,
Hovering above while seasons change like radio stations.

Meanwhile, notifications from the world arrive in wailing klaxon sirens blinding lights revolving round like signs for fire,
Panic-soaked aural reminders of the burning skies behind you while your cage,
Immune to blazes,
Keeps you shielded from the flames

Oh yes

The famine and the tragedy,
The murder and the maiming and the fate of babies,
Children born a little way away in wars that tore through all the static but you haven’t heard the station cos you’re waiting
Waiting
Waiting
Waiting
Waiting
Waiting
Waiting
Waiting, watching, scaling ladders of anticipation,
Every incremental drip has washed away the seas of pain we should be drowning in.

You’re frowning aren’t you?

Well it’s far too late for that; your followers are crowning you as more important than the facts of death, we’re all infected by the virus to be viral:
Hope to screen and screen to hope to screen we’re in a spiral while the world we’re in continues to spin and tornado by you but –

– You are the eye and the eye is so rarely idle…

(Beat)
As it Watches for a notification – 
In the time I wrote this you’ve been steadily aging.
If I ever tweet this I’ll be patiently waiting,
For that little bell to have its dot on the pavement.

(Beat)
I’m igNoring all the notifications – 
In the time I wrote this I just hope they could save them.
One day I just hope that I’ll look up in amazement,
If I ever stop to solve this hopeless equation.

U

Four Stars

Frownable comparisons to people not like me,
Free market hyperbole – honest unlikely,
Quotation summaries, centred and shifted,
Roll-call celebrities, B to D listed.

Adjective careless and adversely sparing,
Sales boost concerning acquaintances caring,
Name recognition brand person at skimming,
Inverted commas ellipses phrase bridging.

Two-worder final endorsement star counted,
Minus the words constellation starts shouting,
Pile upon praise upon climb upon mounting,
Part with your glittering coins at the fountain.

Wishing well expectemptations get tested,
Testing the money spectators pre-bested,
Recommendation on poster back paging,
Poetry anti potential start raging.

-U

Contractual Obligations

I’ll cut straight to the big reveal: every relationship, of any description, at any time, is based on a contract. The contract can be explicit or implied, spoken or unspoken, verbal or not, but by any definition, it exists. It has to. 

The contract is vitally important. It represents an agreement between two parties that forms the foundation of the relationship. Take this very blog post as a particularly immediate example. I have no idea who you are (unless, of course I know you, in which case, hi), but there is still a very clear set of unspoken contractual obligations at play. I have agreed to write something engaging and at least, relevant, that will not deviate from the agreed format of an internet blog post slash essay. I won’t lapse into Gregorian chanting or start typing in 1101110000011010011 binary code for example. And if you don’t like what you’re reading, you are well within your unspoken contractual rights to scroll to the end, close the tab, or get back to googling whatever it was you were googling before you got here.

Every relationship is built around some set of agreed rules in this way. Professionally, this can be seen in sharp relief with GCSE classes; those groups you’ve taught since year 9 and take all the way through to results day. At some point in year 10 an equilibrium is reached. The kids kind of get you and you equally get them. You know how far to push, the accepted limit of banter, the prerequisite effort levels, etc etc. And likewise, the kids know when to talk, when to listen, your various and far ranging moods and when to tune in to your increasingly frequent end-of-movie courtroom speeches. A contract has been established. 01010100001

Now, things tend to get interesting when a contract is breached. When the rules, spoken or otherwise, are broken, there will always be some level of response, or, worse, reaction.Take the GCSE class who gets the anxious new teacher in year 10. He or she might do the unthinkable and, say, get upset when the class doesn’t turn in a decent piece of homework for seven weeks. Said teacher might then lose the plot for a few minutes and tell the class a few home truths along the lines of, say, you’re going to fail your exams and fail in life because you have no work ethic and you treat these lessons like a joke. From teacher A, such aggressive verbal assertions might have been permissible under the rules of the unspoken contract established since Key Stage 3. But from teacher B, with no established contract, it becomes an act of pure aggression. The unspoken rules of the unestablished contract have been broken.

This is where contracts can be dangerous, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fact that they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. The real danger stems from the fact that contracts are defined by expectation.

When a contract is being established, both parties come to the table with a huge menu of expectations and wants. When I sit down to eat at a restaurant, I’m expecting the food I pay for to live up to certain expectations. The money I pay thus acts as a holder of these expectations. In a less literal example, when I enter into an unspoken social contract with a would-be friend, there are clear expectations as to what we might say to each other, how we might behave in various situations, how far we can take our banter, and so on. This has to be the reason that legal contracts are so detailed; they have to spell out every nuance of every clause to ensure that expectations are explicit. The implied becomes explicit and therefore the risk of conflict is minimised. There’s no room for disappointment, because the obligations and expectations are clear.

When we teach your kids, us teachers are continually surfing contractual waves. When I recently told a kid that in all honesty, the class functions better without him, I was pushing the boundaries of the unspoken contract that I would not and should not attack his social wellbeing. Not my proudest moment, but I was angry and in a reactive state. So when he reacted and stormed off, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself; I had breached an important contract. Similarly, when a student who had repeatedly failed to put any effort into his work frustrated me to the point of bemoaning “idiot kids”, his reaction (“you can’t talk to me like that sir”) might not have been accurate, but it was justifiable.

For teachers, establishing classroom contracts in detail is not as important as being aware of the expectations we bring to the table. Not knowing what your expectations are leaves you dangerously naive and vulnerable to your own reactions (which tend to be impulse-based and unreasonable). Far better is to evaluate (and continually reevaluate) your ideals and put effort into developing meaningful relationships. Because ultimately, these relationships are at stake when agreements, explicit or otherwise, are breached. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

And then, ‘Killamanshank’: Stumbling my way towards curriculum diversity

Maybe it’s because I haven’t shied away from my interest in Hiphop, maybe it’s because I’m black, maybe it’s because he’s found my youtube channel, but there’s this kid in my GCSE class who keeps challenging me to a rap battle.

It’s sweet really; he finds me in corridors, smiling inanely (him, not me) and starts calling me out with half formed lyrics, almost entirely borrowed from youtube views. I keep telling him it won’t happen. Mainly because he can’t rap, and my Simon Cowell-esque teacher persona refuses to take him seriously.

Until recently, when he came in, eyes gleaming, repeating the phrase:

“Killamanshank, Killamanshank”

complete with gun fingers. And then I called him on it. I asked him what he was saying, if he knew what he was saying and if he knew why he was saying it. What was it about shanking someone that he felt was exciting enough to bring to a cheeky rap-against-your-teacher scenario? Which led to a whole-class discussion about whether or not Grime reflects reality or reinforces stereotypes.

And then we watched the lyric video to ‘Castles’, discussing tensions between society’s view of the young black male and the actual societal pressures faced by young black males. Which, as it turned out, was a conversation of especial relevance to non-black members of the class, inasfar as they were forced to challenge their own perceptions of blackness.

And then we got to the line:

Tell Boris he’s lucky that I made it rapping or I would’ve been looting too

I asked them who ‘Boris’ is. They correctly identified the reference to London Mayor, Boris Johnson. I asked them who ‘Boris’ represents. They said they weren’t sure (my fault for asking a closed question). 

So I drew their attention to a few scribbled notes from the previous lesson, during which we had discussed the concept of marginalisation.

  
Look carefully at top right. That’s a list we came up with of all the things that the most privileged members of UK society are, the criteria that places them at the centre of mainstream society. We went through each point in turn and asked if they apply to Boris Johnson. Then we did the same with reference to David Cameron. Then we discussed what it means for someone to not satisfy any of that criteria. 
And I showed them this picture:

  
  
which none of them had seen. They immediately clocked Boris Johnson and David Cameron and started questioning how it could be that such a small circle of friends could end up in such positions of social privilege and political influence.

And then I showed them this picture:

  
and asked them what the difference is between a group of MCs who are heavily influencing the mindset of an urban generation and a group of public-school educated Oxbridge alumni who are heavily influencing the country. Which led us back onto the topic of marginalisation and social disenfranchisement, namely questions of how the socially disenfranchised respond to social inequalities, as highlighted by the Bullingdon photo.

Which in turn prompted me to turn our attentions towards the video to ‘ill Manors’ by Plan B.

  
It turned out that this is a very inclusive slice of anti-establishment class-based protest music, in that it features a full complement of marginalised peoples from a social spectrum; people of colour, people living in conditions of deprivation, criminals and would-be criminals, girls, boys, women, men, even an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

My students, at this point were gripped in debate. Some of the girls were firing home truths to some of the boys about their fascination with only the worst aspects of black culture. And some of them were realising, seemingly for the first time, that music videos are hyper-stylised representations, as opposed to accurate depictions of real-life. 

Which prompted me to click the video to Professor Green’s ‘Jungle’ (featuring Maverick Sabre), 
  
a song about the exciting and dangerous urban ‘jungle’ that is East London. With the new perspective offered by our conversation, the class were sharply critical of the representation of young, black men as Morlock-esque urban miscreants, full of nocturnal malevolence. We started to ask difficult questions of Professor Green and challenge our own preconceptions of ‘black boys’ as well as the wider presentation of black youth in pop culture.

In retrospect, this entire lesson (which was a complete derail from what I had planned) was a focussed exploration of three very important concepts: Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement. All three of these concepts are of crucial importance to the experiences of young people, but they don’t readily find a place in mainstream curriculum. Since exploring Hiphoped in practice in my own pedagogy, I have found that most kids are itching to discuss the various intersections between popular culture (that they feel ownership of) and dominant social paradigms (that they are subject to).

All of this demands an interrogation of the modern curriculum. Shortly after this experience, I found myself steering a year 9 unit of work on ‘Survival’ into a study of modern London and the tensions of multiculturalism, during which we examined and compared texts (literature, songs, music videos, poems) by Zadie Smith, Dizzee Rascal, Doc Brown, Sway, Plan B, William Blake and Charles Dickens. 

Along the way, we also studied a selection of newspaper articles and opinion pieces from the Telegraph and the Guardian, branching off into issues if Higher Education and the realities of studying in London. I’m wondering now why I didn’t explicitly introduce the concepts of Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement to this class and think that next year, it might be a good idea to build the Bullingdon Club/ Boy Better Know Debate into their year 10 curriculum. 

No complex conclusions on this one, just a reminder underliner of the importance of opening up the curriculum. When I allowed myself to enter a responsive state, I found myself asking questions alongside my students whilst also asking questions of them. By focussing on issues of marginalisation and representation, I could effectively offer them a place at the table without pandering to stereotypical notions of modern youth, at once accepting them as individuals whilst interrogating their social views and preconceptions. For me, this interweaving of social critique and textual study embodies HiphopEd:

HHEd Manifesto

By removing (or widening?) the parameters of the curriculum, my classes are able to have far more vital conversations than I could have planned for. Two things worth noting here:

1) Many of the essays produced by my students found new intersections between texts, starting conversations rather than confirming established conclusions.

2) This was the first time that my students had seriously discussed writers and artists of colour regarding issues that affect people of colour. In light of a decidedly white curriculum, this is not only significant, but an alarming reminder of the lack of diversity in the usual curriculum. 

As ever, something to think about.

Unseen Flirtations

Note: If you’re interested in further details of the units of work mentioned here, drop me a line in the comments. Always happy to talk.