Teaching to the converted: Black History Month

This blog post has a soundtrack. Click this link in a new tab and read on.

Right. So for reasons only the timetable gods will ever really appreciate, I recently found myself having to cover a merged set of year 8 classes, including only a small handful of kids from my actual class, who have been studying ‘Conflict’ over the past few weeks. We’d recently been exploring the concept of being at conflict with a place (namely London), examining George the Poet’s ‘My City’. I wanted to go further by studying ‘Sittin Here’, the opening track off Dizzee Rascal’s first album, Boy in da Corner.

So I get the music playing and present a selection of words from the song, excitedly telling the kids that we’re going to have a cypher.

Dizzee words

“What’s a cypher?”
“It’s a bunch of people rapping in a circle, and most of you are now terrified.”

Which they were. Admittedly, I hadn’t really set up the situation probably and the prospect of rapping freestyle in a group of peers is pretty daunting for even the most year 8-ish year 8 mind.

Of course, we got off to a slow, halting start and the kids didn’t do much beyond huddle in groups/ cling to tables/ stare wide-eyed at me/ shrink into themselves like prodded snails/ delete as appropriate. To be fair though, there was a palpable sense of excitement slash fear in the air, which transformed into positive energy once I got them all to chant a shared chorus. “Let me think… Let me THINK… Let me THINK (About what!) LET ME THINK!” etc. Despite having seven years of teaching behind me I was learning, all over again, about group dynamics, as if for the first time.

Naturally, I had to rap first to break the ice, and delivered an iceberg-shattering verse that the kids seemed to like, punctuated by whoops, repeated rhyming words and hype-man-esque dance moves. We were warmed up.

At that point, I lowered the volume and let the kids start writing lyrics of their own (note: it was amazing how quickly they found something to write on and with, with absolutely no heel dragging. Hiphoped: Bringing Children, to Life ™). Feel free to lower the volume on the other tab yourself.

Now, this isn’t a blog post about the magical powers of Hiphop to appeal to modern youth. I’ve written than one already. It’s about Black History. And black culture. See, I’ve spent the past four days wrestling with a blog about the perils of that thing we lazily call ‘cultural capital’ in modern education, linking it to something known as Aggression Theory. Please google it. That particular blog will probably never see the light of day because I just can’t reconcile my ideas properly, but this little anecdote I’m spinning offers a measure of clarity.

As the year 8s thawed and started sharing their verses, I was struck by how well-versed they were in the norms of Grime and Hiphop. Irrespective of gender, colour, creed, height, academic ability and eye colour they knew what was appropriate and what was expected. They knew which idiolect to adopt and which references to drop. To varying extents, they shared a tangible cultural capital of ‘black’ culture.

The problem was/ is/ might be they don’t fully appreciate the nuances of the culture they have adopted as their own. I’ve said in previous posts that there is an allure to the illicit nature of urban music that will always appeal to the adolescent mind. But there is so much more going on that many kids, through no fault of their own, do not see, let alone appreciate. I talked to the year 8s about their lyrics (often violent, always boastful, littered with references to money, sometimes playful) and they hadn’t considered why they leant towards some subjects over others. Only one student (interestingly enough, an ‘at risk’ black boy with a history of school suspension) wrote about something really profound, talking about “this place called prison/ that you don’t want to live in”, with references to young children wielding knives in the streets. They laughed with incredulity when I described looping the breaks on funk records to create a party (“what’s a record?”) and furrowed their brows when I suggested that some of them had written lyrics of protest. And when I asked who they wanted to listen to, it was a top five rundown of the latest youtube stars, rather than a considered list of interesting or arresting artists.

With another Black History Month on the horizon, I’m thinking that I might have a responsibility to offer these kids deeper insights into Black British culture, not because I’m black, but because I appreciate the nuances of that culture. I can see the provenance of various urban genres and their wider socio-economic relevances. I can place myself in a socio-cultural historical context. I’d like to think that I can hold my own in a rave just as much as in a debate about UK race relations in the 21st century. And if we’re serious about giving kids a cultural capital that means anything, perhaps we should offer them opportunities for similar understanding of their selves. Definitely something to think about.



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