|Brian Mooney discusses the poem "Boys Will Be Boys," written and performed by his former student Ben.|
New Jersey educators and writing teachers gathered on Wednesday, May 25 at Brookdale Community College to attend the 17th Annual New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference. The keynote speaker kicking off the day of professional development was Brian Mooney, an educator at High Tech High in North Bergen, NJ and a PhD candidate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Mooney uses hip hop and spoken word as a way to educate and connect with his students.
“What distinguished Mr. Mooney's class from other high school classes I've observed was his willingness to have students engage with complex, provocative ideas across disciplines and genres,” said Lynda Dexheimer, Associate Director of the Rutgers Writing Program and a parent of one of Mr. Mooney’s former students. “The synthesis and analysis he encouraged his students to grapple with really raised the bar for critical thinking and meaningful writing.”
Mr. Mooney famously caught the attention of Kendrick Lamar after using the rapper’s album To Pimp a Butterfly during class in conjunction with The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Mooney says in a blog post that students often see no hope in the outcome of The Bluest Eye, a deeply moving story of one young black girl’s obsession with beauty as portrayed on the silver screen by white actresses.
“It’s easy to become devastated by the stagnation of race relations in America. But Kendrick is careful to balance the chaos with a clear and purposeful sense of direction – even when shining the light on his own hypocritical double consciousness,” Mooney writes. “So how do we help our students find hope amidst such chaos and contradiction?”
Mooney helped his students find hope in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, suggesting that Lamar’s nuanced lyrics effectively tie together Toni Morrison’s 1970 classic novel with current race relations in America.
“What would have happened if Pecola listened to Kendrick’s hit single, ‘i’ which celebrates, ‘I love myself’ in a world that tells black people not to?” Mooney wonders.
Mooney’s presentation at NJWA, titled “Writing to Transgress: Breaking Boundaries Through Hip Hop and Spoken Word,” further explored the power of hip hop education. Three of Mooney’s former students also attended the conference and performed their slam poetry, which had previously been performed at Word Up, a performance event that grew out of a spoken word club run by Mooney at High Tech High.
“Word Up is as educational as it is counter-educational,” Ben, one of the poets, said. Mooney explained that Word Up breaks from traditional pedagogy. Students learn how to use their writing skills as a way to tap into their feelings and seize the opportunity to tell their own story. When students are provided with a greater purpose for their writing, such as a culminating performance like Word Up, they become more invested than they would for a simple graded assignment.
Hamza, another poet, read his piece entitled “An Ode to Jersey City.” He powerfully portrayed a moment when a young boy approaches the front desk at the library, only to be told by the librarian, “Put those back, kid, you can’t read all those.”
Following Hamza’s reading, Mooney said, “[Hamza] is asking us to consider the ways young people are silenced by authority.” In contrast, Mooney practiced what he preaches by giving the stage—and a voice—to three young poets during his keynote address. Their work was a testament to his style of teaching, called hip hop education.
Ashley performed her poem “Patsey,” written in response to the film 12 Years a Slave. Ashley’s poem even alluded to Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, showing how Ashley’s advanced writing skills allowed her to close read two different forms of media in one poem. Mooney was proud to share that Ashley won a slam competition with the poem “Patsey” against “adult poets” much older than her in Jersey City. Mooney and other poets from their school attended the slam to support Ashley.
Some might believe that attending a slam to support a student outside of school is going above the call of duty. But, Mooney spoke about the importance of understanding the community from which your students come. “If you don’t live in the community where you teach, spend a Sunday afternoon there,” he urged educators.
Mooney further elaborated on what makes a good teacher by performing a poem of his own, a persona poem in the voice of a bad teacher called “30 Days of American Schooling,” which can be read online here. Educators in the crowd were responsive to the poem, laughing at lines such as, “This syllabus is now your God,” but seriously reflecting on others, like: “We aren’t going to talk about race, class, gender or privilege in this class. We are all the same. Equality, people. Ever heard of it?”
Overall, Brian Mooney’s keynote address was engaging, and many teachers commented that he was the best keynote speaker they had ever seen at NJWA.
“I thought Mr. Mooney's address was exactly what we educators in New Jersey needed to hear. It is time to reflect on how and why we are teaching, and whether or not our philosophies and practices are really best serving students today,” said Dexheimer. “Mr. Mooney's students' poetry was deeply moving and shows exactly the sophistication and brilliance young people have within them. We have to work harder to help them empower themselves to find their own voices as writers.”
If you would like to join the conversation about Hip Hop Education, you can participate in a weekly Twitter discussion with Brian Mooney (@BeMoons) and other teachers using the hashtag #HipHipEd every Tuesday from 9-10 PM.