For those who don’t know, I’m wrapping up my second year of teaching as a high school Reading Specialist, and I will be taking on a new role next year as a full-time English Language Arts Teacher. The experience has been tremendous thus far, in spite of learning how to navigate the early challenges of this career during a pandemic.
I thoroughly enjoy conversing and connecting with my students throughout the day, whether it’s before, during, or after class. As an educator, I truly believe the most important thing I can do day in and day out is attempt to build relationships and connect with my students beyond a textbook.
While this concept unfortunately appears to be crazy to some – teachers trying to be a positive influence beyond teaching them reading and writing skills – those folks would be surprised by the number of students that seek out a conversation with their teachers unrelated to the classroom material each and every day. In fact, I would say in my experience, the vast majority of students that I converse with care more about connectedness and growth with others than they do the content in front of them.
The “teachers should only teach” crowd, obviously, doesn’t have many actual teachers in it. Or at least not very many good ones. Those who are a member of that crowd seem to be terrified that a teacher’s social and emotional support for a student may lead to indoctrinating a student’s mind with some sort of agenda they disagree with. In reality, we’re just out here making sure our students are happy and are receiving the tools they need to – at the very least – be good people.
The majority of my students are freshmen. Some are sophomores. Either is an age of overwhelming curiosity. And after the peak of the aforementioned pandemic, socially, these students are even younger than that at times. Don’t get me wrong, these students are brilliant, wildly creative, and immensely complex, but they are most definitely curious.
I receive questions from these students on a daily basis that reach across the widest range of subjects that you can think of. Now, do I answer every question? Of course not, but it speaks to the levels of curiosity that students of this age have. And with that, there are simply layers of perspective that are missing from their life. The more they ask and learn about you, the more interested they become. The more interested they become, the stronger your relationship is with them. The stronger your relationship is, the more focused and motivated they are to do well in your class and school.
It’s important to help young generations grow as people so that they can appropriately learn how to respect and identify an understanding for things they have yet to experience, or identify an understanding for those who they don’t yet understand. This doesn’t mean we share how they need to feel and think toward particular subjects or people, but we open the opportunity for them to explore it themselves by using the tools we have helped them possess – critical thinking, intercommunication skills, development of empathy, a foundation of skills for appropriate researching, how to motivate and challenge oneself, and so, so much more.
While I don’t have a lot of experience with this yet, and am by no means a professional, one of the things that I’ve learned early on in my career is how different each student can be from the next. While that sounds pretty platitudinous at first, it’s fascinating to see which students share a certain interest with you.
For me, as a three sport coach, the connection is often athletics, but to be honest, the most common connection made between me and the students that walk in and out of my door each day is music.
When I was 19-years-old, I found myself working full-time at a machine shop while simultaneously appealing an academic suspension from a community college that I was attending part-time.
I was a year out of high school, living at home, single, and my closest friends were attending a four-year university far enough away that pretty much all I felt from the situation that I was in was embarrassment.
I legitimately felt like I was alone. Isolated in a world that, in my eyes, didn’t really have a plan for me. Days would go by where I didn’t have motivation to go to school or better the situation that I was in.
Obviously there are billions and billions of people out there who have it much worse, but my point is that the experience was intensely humbling for me.
To be suspended from a community college that basically accepts anyone who is willing to fill out an application was humbling. To be stuck at this particular community college in the first place because of a bad work ethic in high school was humbling. To be living at home while each of your friends are making new friends, living on their own, and growing up in a different world is humbling. To be stuck at a shitty job, punching the clock each day with a bunch of angry-ass, life-long employees was humbling.
Thankfully, I had music.
Music was always something that I took very seriously. In fact, it’s probably why I did so poorly in high school – I always had at least one earbud in at all times distracting me from whatever I didn’t want to face that day. I listened to music while I was at school, in the car, at home, at work, while working out, falling asleep, waking up. It was something that I loved, and that I didn’t have to share with anyone else if I didn’t want to. It was private. It was vulnerable. It was mine.
I felt like it was always there for me no matter the time, place, or mood that I was in. Without it, life was so much more dull, black-and-white. Without music, I truly felt as if the emptiness of the day was swallowing me. The silence could surround me and overwhelm me without it. In some ways, music was a shield from what I didn’t want to hear or didn’t want to think.
Again, thankfully I had music.
At this time in my life, I had a nasty green ‘97 Monte Carlo with a six CD disc changer in the trunk of it. I was going through a phase of adding CD’s to my collection and wanting to find new music because I loved exploring the work of these artists while driving each day.
For me, owning the hard copy of a CD is like owning a physical piece of artwork or history. I love flipping through the album booklet inside – studying the artist, reading lyrics, checking out who received credits, and, of course, admiring the artwork throughout it. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a sticker or poster inside for the buyer. Or sometimes you get unlucky and there’s no booklet of any kind, just the cover art and tracklist.
Regardless, my Monte Carlo became a place where I loved to spend my time. I was able to clear my head and listen to music when I needed it. In many ways it was a sanctuary where I thought about the future, or reflected on the past, or simply expired time in my day-to-day life. But no matter where I was going, or what I was thinking about, there was always music.
Many of my students share these same feelings.
Many of my students have shared in their writing that music gives them an “escape” or it “distracts” them from things in their personal life.
Of course there are some students who said that they simply enjoy listening to music because they enjoy the vibe or they feel that it’s relaxing. There were even some who have said that they listen to music for the meaning behind it. Regardless, I did some polls in my classes and here are the results.
74% of my students said that music is important to them.
86% of students said they listened to more music during/after the pandemic than they had before.
68% of my students listen to music for at least one hour per day.
72% of my students chose hip-hop/rap as their favorite genre of music to listen to.
This year, I’ve tried to use music in my classroom more than I had in my first year. And I plan to use it more next year than I did this year. Music is the modern day version of literature. Why wouldn’t we want to tap into that and explore the mind of these brilliant artists the way that we do authors? Why wouldn’t we want to explore what the students are actually choosing to listen to? Why do we look at music so differently than audiobooks?
Nearly 70% of my students choose to listen to music an hour or more per day, but less than 25% are choosing to read an hour per week.
For many, I’d suspect that music is much easier to connect emotionally with – individually or with others – than a book.
Another reason that I am passionate about music is that it has always been something that helps me feel connected to others.
I can’t count how many times I have traded a CD with a friend or huddled around a computer watching music videos with them all night. My friends and I would debate music for hours, and we’d take turns sharing songs or a new artist.
There are no jerseys to wear in the rap game, but we had to wear something. Owning the CD of an artist was a symbol of fanship! That fanship is recognized by CD’s being crammed into a car glove box, artwork framed inside of an office, vinyl covers being tacked to the wall of a bedroom, or a classroom wall being covered with lyrics. That symbol shows a willingness for conversation.
There are very few things better than finding a new artist or album and putting others onto it. I still remember hearing Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 for the first time and sharing it with friends immediately. It ultimately turned into the background sound of everything that we did for a long, long time.
During the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I had some leftover money on an iTunes gift card and wanted to hear something new while I mowed the lawn. From there, I found Section.80 advertised as a new release in the iTunes store and listened to a 30 second sample of the album. I purchased it and was instantly transformed into a world of music that I didn’t know even existed at that point.
Kendrick offered a new style of music that felt, for lack of a better term, real. It was socially conscious rap that hit on real life struggles. His music was harsh and rugged. You could feel the perfection of his production inside of your soul, yet understood that it was created to be unorthodox. His lyrics were powerful beyond initial comprehension. You could just hear him speaking from the heart, rather than trying to make a hit for a young audience. There were definitive layers to it, rather than empty punchlines.
He was immediately one of the most talented rappers alive upon releasing his debut album, and I understood this within, like, 13 minutes.
Kendrick was educating and connecting listeners to his lived experiences while sharing his perspective of personal struggles and failings, encounters of racism and sparking conversaitons of modern-day slavery. He shared his struggles and tolerance for personal harm, and illustrated his observations of those around him before deep diving into self-reflection. Kendrick launched himself into the industry by masterfully storytelling an extremely complex coming-of-age album by a young black kid who grew up in Compton California.
Despite having close to zero lived experiences in common with Kendrick, this album opened my mind to so much of the world that I had not yet discovered. It opened me to topics that required growth in my maturity to fully understand. It opened me to learning to appreciate things that I lacked perspective of. Maybe most importantly, it opened me to the challenge of having conversations with others about the subjects that made up the album. It challenged me to conduct some research and educate myself. It challenged me to look at music deeper than simply what I was hearing.
Music has always been something that helps listeners feel connected to other listeners. Whether you appreciate a specific style or sound, understanding and sharing an artist’s purpose, associating yourself with a community of people, you begin to internalize and share those feelings. You begin to learn more about yourself and the world around you.
And yet, sometimes, it’s simpler than that. Sometimes music is very important to you because of a connection that you can make with it to a core memory.
For example, one of my favorites albums of all-time is Ridin’ Dirty by UGK. While the album has an incredible story of creation and wildly explicit lyrics, for me, it makes me think of my wife.
Years ago, I upgraded the Monte Carlo to a modern Buick. One of the only bad things about this was switching the disc changer to a single CD player in the car – still no aux cord capabilities. One of the staples that I left in my rotation though was Ridin’ Dirty.
When I picked her up to go to a movie for our first date, I was playing that album in the car.
I learned early on that my wife and I had a very similar taste in music – Jay-Z, Kendrick, OutKast, and randomly, UGK. We often talked about music when we had begun dating. I was in absolute disbelief that I found a girl who matched my musical interests as perfectly as she did. Just while texting her, and getting to know her some, it was clear she really knew her stuff.
“One Day” is the first song (after the intro) on the album and there’s just something about it when the music rings through the speakers and Ronnie Spencer lets out that, “Well, well, well, welllllll / Hello baby! / For one day you heeere / And then you’re goooOOOone.”
To this day, I can’t hear this song or album without thinking about my wife. Every. Single. Time.
I remember thinking about how nervous I was to be there with her, and had no idea what the future held for us on the drive to and from the theater, but I knew that I had found something special. In a weird way, this album was letting me know that while we listened to it.
Not too long into our relationship, she admitted to me that she had fabricated some of that and really just learned who I loved listening to by doing some digging on Twitter. She hoodwinked me by pretending that they were her favorites! Her attention to detail and attempt to impress me was ridiculous, but it was really something that boosted my initial interest in her. In the long run, it’s a hilarious story that doesn’t really matter, but when I listen to this song or the album it’s a connection that makes me very happy.
“Rap is Something You Do, Hip-Hop is Something You Live.” – KRS-One
After getting off of an academic suspension, and ultimately deciding to try harder in school, I was able to find a lot of success. I held a GPA above 3.5 over my final three years of college, made the Dean’s List a few times, and really just found my stride once I committed to education.
Part of this journey was meeting a professor who I fully credit for being one of the most influential people in my life.
Not only was he a kick-ass professor who was and continues to be wildly supportive in terms of educational needs, but he created a space within his classroom that allowed hip-hop, comics, and pop-culture to exist within topics of oppression, injustice, and education. He’s a pedagogy savant that helped me open my educational door and invite in rich subjects to help my students conquer their struggles. His courses helped me understand how to stretch a student’s reading and writing skills with the use of culturally relevant topics and creative, critical thinking.
The KRS-One lyric is something my professor would often recite in conversations because of a shared love that we have for music. He helped me see music in ways that I had never imagined. He challenged me to listen and analyze music for an understanding, rather than pure enjoyment. He challenged me to embrace my love for music and bring it into my classroom. If nothing else, he taught me that I owe it to my students to be the most authentic form of myself.
While rap music is important to people because it’s what they enjoy listening to, or perhaps, enjoy doing, hip-hop presently exists in many different forms within mainstream America. To put it simply, hip-hop is a melting pot of deep, complex social, political, and cultural perspectives, emotions, and lived experiences that exist within America today through music, movies, TV shows, social media trends, language, advertisements, fashion, sports, and so much more. It’s impossible to define hip-hop as a single strand of entertainment because it is at the core of so much of what we desire, but it’s equally impossible to find something that it isn’t attached to.
The connectedness of hip-hop is important because it’s about passing down music, perspectives, and history from one generation to another. A conversation can rekindle a flame to an album that you heard years ago that a generation below you is experiencing for the very first time. In a way, you are reliving that experience as if it’s your first time because of the excitement shared from both of you.
A while back, I traded a list of albums with a student that we thought the other should listen to. One of the projects on his list was Graduation by Kanye West – an album that I’ve heard countless times. To see the excitement on his face as I listened to him share why he loves that album, and why I should listen to it, was priceless. Rather than sharing that I’ve listened to it many, many times, and killing his joy, I gave it an additional spin later that day because of the energy he displayed. And what’s amazing is that I found myself appreciating different aspects of it than I had before. To see an album that was so impactful to my generation survive over a decade later is astounding.
It was as if I had watched him go into a time machine and travel to the era of music that I grew up in. I instantly called an audible and gave him a list of the most popular albums from when I was his age. Since then, he has returned to my class daily with more excitement, deeper thoughts on music, and more students. Each of these students come in and trade thoughts with me, as if I’m this great gatekeeper for hip-hop or like we have a club of some sort. In reality, I’m just there hoping to continue building connections that are authentic.
While maybe it was on a more sophisticated level, these are the types of conversations that I had with my professor. If there’s anything I learned from those conversations, it’s that connecting with others on shared passions or interests, then building on those previous experiences and discussions is how you develop and maintain a strong relationship.
A week ago, Kendrick Lamar released, maybe, the most highly anticipated album of my lifetime. Five years after releasing the epic, Pulitzer Prize winning DAMN., Kendrick released Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
I stayed up late for the release and just sat there, listening. I listened for 1 hour and 13 minutes, then immediately restarted the album and listened again.
I was speechless.
I don’t think I’ve heard a more vulnerable, honest album. I don’t think I’ve heard an artist take such a bold, honest risk.
The next day students kept asking me what I thought about it. Twitter was loaded with takes. My phone was buzzing with text messages. How can you possibly have thoughts on something so heavy so quickly?
It’s not an album you listen to while you workout. It’s not an album you listen to while your buddies in the car continue interrupting the vibe with a basketball argument. It’s not an album you listen to with one AirPod in while you go throughout your day. It’s art. It’s beautiful. You need a clear head and clear schedule during that first listen.
If you’re still not seeing it with this album, go lay down and listen while you lay in bed and stare at the ceiling.
It’s an emotional, mature album. You owe it to the artist enough to respect that. It took him the better part of five years to create this project while he went through some really, really heavy shit in his life. Give it multiple listens and unpack the messages within.
The album shows insane growth and maturity. It’s an educational album that pushes down and runs through many barriers within the genre. No rapper, certainly of this magnitude, has ever been this straightforward with his personal struggles and insecurities. Kendrick focuses on grief, guilt, generational and personal trauma, violence, and commitment to himself and family.
Is it his best album? I don’t think so, but I’m also not even sure what his best album is. Regardless of which album you believe to hold that title, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers could be his most important.
While they’re just two songs from the album, “Father Time” and “Mother I Sober” are as powerful as any song I’ve ever heard.
One song exposes the storied history of the toxic masculinity that runs through generations of people with “daddy issues,” which is reflected by burying your emotions, turning to gang violence for an outlet, and fighting deep struggles with your mental health. And the other shares trauma from a childhood of sexual abuse and assualt that runs through his family. Kendrick then zooms out away from his personal experiences to speak on the sexual abuse that took place during slavery and has followed the black community to this day. This is all brought to light in hopes of being transparent and releasing the demons from within himself to break a generational curse for his family. The groundbreaking, tear jerking track ends with his fiancé and their children thanking him for being brave in this moment and doing this for them.
I mean, are you kidding me? Read that again.
It’s an album that listeners will be able to connect with on topics far more individualized and private than he or others have released before. I’m thinking about those who identify with the feelings of this project and see it from the same perspective as the creator. Or those who understand his pain and seek the help that they need because of this album. Or those who hear this and let it blur out the issues of their own lived experiences and help them get through their personal struggles.
Nobody can do this. To take us behind the curtain and expose these elements is special. There are a handful of songs on this album that are as good as anything he has ever created.
Despite Kendrick being adamant that he is “not our savior” and closing the album by apologizing for choosing himself over fans when they were calling for him, his message on this album is going to, ironically, truly be for others and likely save many.
Even for those who view this as an average Kendrick Lamar album, there’s no denying that his five album run is among the best in the history of the genre – if not music. Whether it’s music, writing, or art, Kendrick is one of the greatest to ever do it and should be celebrated accordingly.
As we wrap up this school year, I’m looking forward to next fall already. I’m excited to continue connecting with students and trying to be of some importance to them.
I have already started working on a project for the classroom next year, as well as been invited to a hip-hop education panel at my alma mater with my old professor.
I’m not positive what next year is going to bring for me in a new teaching position, but I know that I’m going to be bringing Kendrick Lamar and music with me to it.