I first learned of Christopher Emdin after stumbling upon the Twitter hashtag #HipHopEd, which he co-created. Emdin is insistent that the music loved by so many black and brown youth need not be an obstacle to their academic excellence. Through his Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bringing Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science), Emdin has managed to harness the power of hip-hop music and culture to introduce young people to the wonder and beauty of science. “The core message of the initiative is to meet urban youth who are traditionally disengaged in science classrooms on their cultural turf and provide them with the opportunity to express the same passion for science that they have for hip-hop culture,” he says.
In the U.S., students of color have long been told that the message that if they want to be successful in school and go to college, they’d better conform, intellectually and socially, to the dominant white culture. That means checking what’s relevant to them—their neighborhood, their home, their language, their creativity and ingenuity, and their hip-hop music—at the classroom door.
The main activity of Emdin’s project is a competition across 10 schools in New York City in which students write science-themed raps inspired by what they are learning in class. These students engage in rap battles that showcase both their science knowledge and their rap skills, and their raps are assessed for their science content in the vein of an exam. Winners from participating schools then engage in a cross-school science competition at a local university where a citywide winner is declared. Emdin, an associate professor of science education at Columbia University, has collaborated with Rap Genius and Wu Tang Clan’s GZA along the way, and he plans to expand the program in New York as well as to 10 other cities across the U.S.
The shooting of Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station parking lot has sent a clear message to black youth: Hip-hop can get you killed. Head to the average American classroom and you’ll find a teacher who sees hip-hop—and the culture that comes with it—as a force to be silenced, too. Christopher Emdin is showing that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Liz Dwyer is the education editor at GOOD.
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