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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Teacher’s use of lyrics sound

Paul Mencke Special to The Spokesman-Review

Spokane Public Schools’ recent reaction to a teacher using a contemporary rap song containing an off-color lyric is extremely perplexing.

Throughout the past year, many articles in The Spokesman-Review have discussed current approaches to solving the “drop-out” issue. But this issue continues to be hotly debated as many of us wonder, “What can be done with the students who don’t want to be in school?”

I believe, and have seen firsthand, the positive effects this song, “Commencement Day” by the Blue Scholars, can have on all students – especially those who “don’t seem to want to be in school.”

The song (as well as other material), which asks students to question the current model of curriculum, is exactly what must be used if we plan to curb the high drop-out” rate.

Our educational system’s insistence on ignoring the lives of our low socioeconomic and multicultural students, which are often portrayed in hip-hop music, is often what pushes students out of our schools. Therefore, we may want to reframe our label of these students as “push-outs” instead of “drop-outs.”

Spokane Public Schools’ explanation that “Off-color language, not an indictment of the educational system” was the reason for the teacher being placed on leave, has no merit. When comparing why the off-color language is an issue of concern in the rap song, but not an issue when discussing “Catcher in the Rye,” this story becomes more perplexing.

Why is profanity perfectly all right in the context of classic literature, but not in the context of hip-hop? This is an implicit way of demonstrating that stories told through hip-hop lyrics, often the stories of many students’ lives, are inappropriate, especially as a learning tool.

The message being sent, and many push-outs are clearly receiving it, is that their experiences in life are not valued in our public school system.

If we wish to decrease the push-out rate, we need to start by using materials such as this song to allow students to question why they may not be enjoying school. Is it due to the fact that they never see themselves in the curriculum? Do they feel the curriculum doesn’t pertain in any way to their diverse lives?

Finally, a teacher has recognized a way to actually get students interested in learning and the school district wants to put a sudden end to this approach.

In my own work with students most at risk of being pushed out of school, I have used this song, and the student responses have been transformative – transformative because we have witnessed students who don’t want to be in school, being instantly engaged in the learning process.

By listening to the students to understand what matters in their lives, we work together to weave their curiosities into the topic being taught. The song’s line “bring your paper, but please leave your lyrics at home” is a stark reminder that our current educational model asks students to bring paper so the teacher can tell you what you need to know, but don’t bring your experiences (lyrics) because they are not valued in school.

This teacher needs to be commended, and our schools need to reconsider their approach to decreasing the push-out rate in our community, as well as around the country. I have used the approach of listening to students, encouraging them to challenge all perspectives including my own and their own views. This approach fosters an education which allows for all students to bring their valuable experiences into the classroom and to feel appreciated in school even if their opinion is that “school sucks.”

As an educator, I feel this is when teaching becomes fun, because the students can begin to explore why they feel school is not enjoyable, and through that experience they often learn that they are not always the problem. Instead the problem may be curriculum which upholds the belief that one perspective (the white middle-class male perspective) is the only perspective and therefore pushes many students away from school. Schools must come to the realization that this traditional perspective is by no means wrong, but it is just one of a wide variety of perspectives that need to be embraced in school if we want all students to succeed.

Paul Mencke, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Washington State University.
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