by Sweta Patel
“How do you say your name again?”
You might guess that this conversation played itself out over and over again throughout my school-age years. You’d be right. But the twist is that this particular conversation happened just yesterday between my tennis coach and myself.
I’d like to take you back to 1990 for a moment, when I entered second grade. I was seven years old, eager to fit in. And I was still “Svet-ta.” But that year, my teacher and classmates butchered my name enough times that I resolved to just change it to make it easier for them to pronounce. I was embarrassed each time anyone called me “Sweat-a” or strangely enough, “Sweat-er.” I started telling everyone (well, non-Indians) to call me “Sweet-a.”
The name that my seven-year-old self-deemed as more culturally appropriate has continued to follow me into my 30s in all aspects of my life, from my workplace to the tennis courts… and most likely, will continue to stick for life.
My own experience with my name has made it a priority for me to get my students’ names right. With each new class, I wonder how many share a similar journey. But most of all, I emphasize that if I ever mispronounce their name, I want them to correct me rather than silently go along with it. I never want to be part of the reason why a student chooses some other name because they feel it's easier for their teacher.
As I write this article, I’m forced to think deeply about why that moment in second grade hits such a nerve. Names are tightly connected to one’s identity. In creating a new name, I feel I cemented an identity split between my Indian and Americanized self. Yes, people often choose to change their pronunciation of certain words in an effort to be understood. (I know this all too well after receiving some funny looks when I asked a teacher for a “bowel” to eat my snack in. It’s how I always heard my parents say it!). But in the case of adopting a new name because others couldn’t pronounce it easily, I feel it was a forced change… that my choice had been taken from me.
In the years that followed, I struggled with the yo-yoing back and forth between my two identities. I still remember an open house night during seventh grade. My mom was sitting next to me, listening to my choir teacher talk about the class and expectations. The teacher must have asked me a question, and I answered back with a soft voice. My mom turned to me afterwards and said, “What was that? Where’d your voice go? I’ve never heard you speak so quietly before.” You see, “Sweet-a” was soft-spoken, unsure of her voice and opinions. “Svet-ta” was confident. She spoke and laughed loudly.
A more telling moment happened in eighth grade when I passed a bathroom mirror at school. I remember a surreal moment where I was taken aback by the brown skin reflected back at me. I had come to feel very white in those school halls.
And now, years later, to my Indian friends, I’m still Svet-ta” - a popular Indian name that signifies “purity.” I cringe every time I have to introduce myself to a non-Indian in front of other Indians as “Sweet-a.” I feel overly American in those moments. I’ve tried to teach these same non-Indians the correct pronunciation, and they do try… but the continued butchering makes me cringe even more. So, the two names have stuck.
I don’t know how much of these dual identity experiences and feelings are connected to the moment I adopted a more easily pronounced name. But I do wonder that had I been able to remain “Svet-ta” in school and at home, whether I would have felt more comfortable bringing my Indian self into the classroom. When we’re young, we’re eager to fit in and are quick to reject anything that gets in the way as ‘uncool.’ We try to scrap parts of us that others don’t accept as easily. As an adult, we know that one culture isn’t necessarily better than the other. “Sweet-a” is a nagging reminder of how I shoved my Indian heritage down and hid it away. I regret the feelings of shame that contributed towards the divide.
With a new school year almost upon us, I hope that all staff are mindful of working hard to get student names right, the way the student is requesting that it’s pronounced. After one or two failed attempts, students generally just silently accept it. Instead, staff can double check with: “It’s really important to me to get your name right. Please tell me if I’m still missing it.” That statement can go a long way in preventing mispronounced names from sticking not just for that one class and for that one school year, but for the rest of their life.
So many in my extended family have similar stories: “Chirag” is “Shiraq.” “Hemant” is “Harry.” “Suresh” is “Sam.” “Roshan” is “Ro-shawn.” And on and on the newly created names go, in an effort to provide “easier” names. My cousin often tells the story of always running to class whenever she’d find out there would be a substitute teacher that day. She didn’t want the class to laugh when the sub would predictably mispronounce her name. So she’d walk up and quietly give her adopted name before her classmates arrived.
One idea that districts might adopt is having a place within their student management system (SMS) to include the phonetic pronunciation of students’ names. Imagine if each parent/guardian who registers their new Kindergarten student had a chance to write in how their student’s name is pronounced. This information could then be integrated into their student profile page.
Parents/Guardians of current elementary or middle school students might get a pop-up message when they access the SMS system to enter the phonetic pronunciation. Current high school students could enter the information on their own.
This change would allow staff a better chance of getting student names right on the first try. It would also help to lessen student anxiety and embarrassment around butchered names. And not to mention, graduation ceremonies would be a lot less painful for students and their families. I can still clearly recall last year’s ceremony: A student walked up to accept her certificate and told the staff member, “How did you get my name wrong? I’ve been here for four years. Really?”
To help our students know that we see them and that we hear them and that we value who they are as they stand before us, we can start with their name and take care to do our best to get it right.
by Jean Prokott
We'll see how this year goes. That's what teachers say on August 1st, the exact spot of the year when mowing the lawn is no longer novel and when one single pumpkin shows up at Michael's, and suddenly your stomach hurts, so you abandon the cart in the middle of the aisle and run out the door.
It's my first year. Last year was my first year, too, and I had a first year back in 2008 (student teaching), and then another in 2009 (first year on my own), and then another in 2010 (new district), and then another in 2013 (this district), and then 2020 (online). It's human to mark time, especially when we define the year by nine months, like nesting mothers. Oftentimes, beginnings are celebrated. The new school year allows for this—busses weave their caterpillar selves in a parade through the suburban streets, Target sells out of oatmeal-colored cardigans, hallways smell like fresh books rather than freshmen—and it's worth our Cheers. Once summer says goodbye, we're a little ready even if we don't admit it, and we raise our glasses and thank it for its dedication to the company.
To be a first year teacher is to start planning too early, or to start planning too late. The anxiety of a blank calendar, or an overdone calendar, becomes nightmare fuel, as do the faceless heads of future students, new PLCs, new rules, new norms, new shoes to break in, literally and figuratively. You wonder how long it will take for students to know you're a cool teacher or how long it will take them to respect you, you wonder the protocol for going to the bathroom, you wonder how to set up your gradebook. During a teacher's first year, the stress of choosing the correctly colored paper is somehow equally as important as writing an entire unit plan, and prioritizing depends on which lottery ball you pull from the machine that morning.
So, 2020 felt like that, because I had no idea how to teach online—it was new platforms, new technology, new norms, new ways to build student relationships. (On top of this, of course, there was a global pandemic, if you've heard of it. Also we were all very tired.) It didn't matter how long you'd been teaching when you started the 2020 school year. You were a first year teacher. We survived by softballing the phrase we got this! over and over, we were selective about the "effs" we decided to give (sometimes it was zero effs, a few times it was negative effs), and we figured it out, as teachers do, and we did a good job, because we are good at our jobs.
Here we are once again. During my first in-person meeting since March 2020, I sat in a small room and felt a stomachache. While a PLC and I collaborated on a writing diagnostic, I thought about my classroom desks, which need to be cleaned, and also my entire curriculum for three preps, which needs to be rewritten. Should I sharpen some pencils and tidy them like a floral arrangement in a coffee cup, or should I write a unit test? These are the same, somehow. I feel like I've forgotten how to talk to students, face to face. I spent the last school year teaching to SpongeBob icons and Helvetica letters, so I've forgotten what students look like, and when I pulled up class lists last week, I saw that students had grown weird mustaches and landed on haircuts that might have been dares. It was a grid of aliens. What do we say to these awkward, beautiful beings? We got this? So, 2020, amirite? Will they answer? How do I put them in groups? How do we count our traumas? Will I learn names, since they'll be wearing masks? Is decorating your mask too corny of an icebreaker? Are they sick of adults asking them how they're doing? How do I teach students how to read, or how to write? If I sit with this last question, the answer moves farther and farther away, and years of schooling and experience bubble as they sink to the ocean floor, to live in a pineapple under the sea.
For a few years, I taught new teachers through Winona State University's Teacher Preparation Collaborative—folks who'd gone to college for other careers and found their way to the secondary classroom. These classes were the second week of June—I'd gotten only two days of summer before diving in—and it was difficult to be optimistic after a long school year. But the first-years' excitement was always contagious. They'd put their lives on hold to become teachers, so they helped me to see the work was worth it, that there was magic in school, that magic was fueled by nostalgia. They hadn't been tainted by the political nuances or roadblocks I'd met during battle. The first-years were me a decade ago. She was nervous, but she was all-in.
One good thing about last year's first year, and again this year's first year, is we are learning this together. Whoever learns to tie her shoes first bends down with the rest of us to loop our bunny ears. While our traumas, losses, weight gain, coping skills, relationships, etc. are different, what we have in common is that we must use each other to advocate for ourselves. If the last school year and the pandemic has taught us something, I hope it is that we are allowed to be vulnerable. Lean, hover, take a mental health day. We tell our students to prioritize their mental well-being far in front of algebra problems or pages 3-20 of The Scarlet Letter. I don't think new teachers hear this (or tell themselves this) enough: it doesn't have to be perfect. Get off Pinterest. Nobody who is normal or who has a life actually has that color-coordinated HGTV classroom. Your Expo markers are a little dry, sure, but the kids in the back can still read the board.
We'll see how this year goes. We should find our people at school and vent and learn with them. We should learn to be comfortable with sending "I need help" emails to administrators without worrying we will look weak—do it as a team, if you need to. Administrators should make clear on day one that they encourage, and will respond to, these emails. Don't let anyone pretend things are "back to normal" no matter how much they want them to be, because normal is something else now. Put the brakes on a meeting whenever you'd like to declare: this doesn't matter right now—Covid is still here and kindly excuse yourself. Remember that the things you love about school—that caloric nostalgia—will still be there. You have students and Crayolas and those ingredients are enough. Absolutely do not compete with one another, do not brag, do not declare you are doing a bad job. Pray for snow days. Have a movie day and feel good about it. Build in independent reading time and don't feel bad for it, and do your own independent reading with the students rather than plan or grade. We're tired, we're green, we're ready but won't know it until we're in it.
Students are not behind and neither are we. It's their first year, too. There is no rush. There is no "lost time*" to make up for—there is only the time we give ourselves to heal.
We recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Lazerbeak and Ilan Blanck on our podcast, where we discuss mental health, creativity, curiosity, and a growth mindset. One thread that, authentically or through sheer force of will, pulled these pieces together was the ability to create and foster a thriving community—a talent Lazerbeak and Ilan have proven to be particularly adept at over their many years in the music industry.
The piece that most intrigues me is that students thirst for community and belonging, yet when educators spend time on building a culture and community, it’s often we tend to build it for our students. Occasionally, we build it with our students. In terms of clubs and organizations, we sometimes build it through our students. However, I have yet to see an educator help students learn how to build a community in which they can belong.
In trying to break down the component parts that we may use to help students with community building, we journeyed through several layers of an umbrella process. Ilan represents these umbrella parts by recommending that we:
| 1 |
Of course, we can teach structure and organization. Through the conversation, Lazerbeak and Ilan elucidated that the organization of a community requires building an organized system that others can easily join. This also requires having a structure to reach out to those we admire or value—a clear system through which we can reach out to others. Structured discussions are wonderful in class, but we need to have the skills to engage in face to face or digital environments—to make calls, send emails, begin conversations, or “send out feelers.”
| 2 |
Following up can include strategies of organization (one strategy they shared outside of this podcast is to keep a list of names and conversations as they take place). We can, of course, also lean on calendar reminders, clock apps, and other technologies to be notified to follow up.
| 3 |
The piece that may be the hardest to teach—essentially having a tone of approachability—they luckily also had specific ideas for.
So! I am sincerely curious as to who is out there. This is my attempt to reach out and see if we can interact a little more often. I’d like to belong to a community of people who want to grow. I want to be a part of a community that wants to grow together and that wants to help others to grow. What say you? And even if you aren’t interested—thank you for being engaged enough to read this far.
by Andy Johnsrud
The past 18 months of teaching have played out like the crazy “teacher dreams” many of us know too well. But rather than showing up in our subconscious in the month of August, we lived it! We all lived through what felt like a circus funhouse version of distance-hybrid-make-crap-up-as-you-dance-under-a-spotlight version of school. The weirdness of the past 18 months also provided a sustained and sometimes brutal assessment of some of the most basic things I think I know and do as a teacher.
We all struggled and got to see some things about our students and ourselves. Sometimes that view could be truly harsh as it revealed my judgment, lack of control, feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes that view was so very tender and revealed care, connection, empathy, and compassion with my fellow human beings of all ages. Many times this sustained focus kicked my bum and left me so far past vulnerable that I didn’t always know if I had what it takes to do this job. Note: none of these feelings were new--magnified and intensified, yes...but not new.
The struggle and challenge of these past months can be wonderfully fertile soil for me to grow, both personally and professionally. This is certainly not to be read as, “got things figured out now. Check that off my list.” This is the heart of our shared humanity and of being a teacher.
For me, acts of simple honesty to oneself and letting go of what we don’t control can help open a space. In that space we may be able to bring our most open and authentic care to one’s self. This is actually for the direct benefit of one’s students and their well-being beyond school, as well as for YOU.
STOP TO REFLECT
S for STOP
Adult Nervous System IS the Interverntion
A healthy mind-body system can be thought of as having both awareness and hope. Getting to that hope requires action on my part. This is not something we find in pedagogy nor plans nor assessment. My own growth has been helped by daily mindful practices, including meditation.
Pause for a moment to think of someone (teacher, parent, et al.) who had a profound impact for the better. What are two-three words that describe this person? It may be that those descriptors include terms that denote connection, limits, empathy, love and other traits. More than anything I believe that children, as humans (!), learn between the words and academics. They learn through the feeling and presence of the adults in their lives. This is another great hope--and a tremendous responsibility. My nervous system matters in “regular times” or “pandemic times”--the way I show up matters and can be a gift or a detriment to my students and my classes. This takes awareness and provides hope. There is something I can do for myself that will benefit others.
Patricia Jennings' research shows us what we intuitively know and hear: we actually TEACH better when we take care of our own nervous systems. Anyone who has ever taught knows that when one kid is hyper or "off" or whatever, there's a domino effect in the class.
Most of us are self-aware enough to know that that's true of our own regulation as well! These both clearly affect the class. A well-regulated adult nervous system IS the intervention. Simple. Not magic. Not easy. Not instant. It requires work over time. Many people do this through mindfulness or meditation.
Survival of the Nurtured
The psychologist and Pepperdine professor Louis Cozolino studies the social nature and adaptability of the human brain. He has famously said that, “[w]e are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”
Many of us know the misleading claim that Darwin’s ideas can be reduced to “survival of the fittest.” This is contrary to what I know as a teacher. Teaching, learning, and nurturing are not a zero-sum game. Rather, Cozolino reminds us that as we modern humans change and adapt we need social connection. These connections are at the heart of what it is to be a good teacher, parent, person.
A number of good teachers teach about the importance of caregivers taking good care of self first. The notion of “survival of the nurtured” can reframe our work (and self-care!) as something we owe to our students for our benefit and their benefit. The former is an act of caring for children because it gives foundation for the latter. If the “bottom line” or “go-to” is always change/alter/fix, we risk missing a key opportunity for giving our kids what they truly need on a most basic human level.
Paradox is the Name of the Game
We do lots to try to help kids cope and learn about life. Raising resilient kids who think for themselves is a paradox. We know kids have to struggle, and hurt, and fall down, and make mistakes because they are human and this is how humans seem to learn best in the real world. This is how we instinctively know kids need to make mistakes and need us to offer the time and space, within limits, to figure things out for themselves.
The petri dish of 18 really weird months of unexpected conditions gave us a chance to see how we might recast and reconsider what it is we really do daily as teachers. This is a window, an opportunity to look at what I can really offer students as people. Experience has taught me that showing up for my students directly and unguardedly is what I have to offer my students. This is SO hard because we don’t want kids to suffer any more than possible--especially when the world turns upside down. But when I do this I can start to share emotional regulation and offer calm and secure relationships to my kids. This connection and relationships are basic human needs. Just like we preach to our kids, adults need time and practice to develop skills, too. Mindfulness is a tool for basic awareness. Mindfulness can bring greater awareness to my conditions and reactions AND my students’ conditions and reactions.
Control: That's a Funny Dream
It can be painfully clear that we have very little if any control over our students’ lives outside the schoolhouse doors. The weirdness of the past 18 months has put an exclamation point on that for us: thank you very little COVID-19! I think it has also exposed some of the “theatre” of school: all the things we well-intentioned adult-teacher-types are going to “do” to “fix” kids to “learn” them what they need. Now don’t get me wrong, systems, pedagogy, and curricular design are wonderful tools--just maybe not the magic fixes we quietly look for given the desperate conditions some of our kids and families face. Throughout my teaching career, our responses have been driven nearly singularly by notions and ideas of improvement plans, curricular design, and top-down initiatives. These are all fine...but, Maslow before Bloom is a cliche saying for very real and valid reasons.
Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Third Eye Education recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ian Levy, both for this podcast episode as well as for this interview where we discuss his new book Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy in School Counseling: Developing Culturally Responsive Approaches. What we found most enjoyable was how applicable the book is to all areas of education. For the podcast, we focused on ways hip hop can be leveraged as a tool in the classroom and in the counselor’s office.
For this article—a transcribed interview and the first of a two-part series—Levy and our team focus on the empowerment of students through the creation of space.
We’d like to focus on chapter four and chapter six, if that's okay?
Yeah, absolutely. The office creation and then the cypher chapter. Yeah totally. Those would be great.
A Safe Space: physical & dialogical
Perfect. A question from Jean Prokott, our poet in residence: Could creating space translate to classrooms and to broader educational use in some way? What obstacles prevent that from happening?
When I think about creating space, I think about the ambiguous, hard to find emotional space, and then the physical space. I think about both spaces. The physical space is more the focus of chapter four, in particular. It boils down to: Why do we create spaces based on an assumption of what feels comfortable for youth rather than saying, “Hey, what kind of space do you want to come into every day?”
It is a very simple idea, but a powerful one. This came from years of experiences being in schools—we come in those few weeks before school starts and we get our room set up and we plan really hard. That is really wonderful and we get a lot of great work done in that time. But I don’t think it always involves youth voices. It is based on our assumptions, but not that next step of, “Hey, what do you want to do? How do you want to design that space?”
When I looked at the literature, there wasn’t a lot on that. When you look at differences culturally--What does it mean to create a space that is inclusive and intersectional?—that didn’t really exist at all. I found a multicultural checklist that was like: put some posters on the wall of different cultures. That was as close as it came, which was so far off the mark. So, there was this pivot to say, “Hey, I’m just going to go into school and work with the youth to define what it is that a space needs to look and feel like for them to want to talk about their emotions within that space.”
When I started thinking about where that happens in hip hop—the studio has always been that. Rappers explain studios as spaces for personal transformation: as comfortable environments where they can engage in this emotional labor. Those spaces are usually—dim lighting, comfortable seating, being able to sit with other people and process things out loud: very lounge-like. It is interesting because the little bit of literature about asking youth, even after the fact, those things came up: dim lighting, couch—all the things the studio has already been doing. There’s evidence that those are helpful, but no one has connected those things and said, “Let me take some young people and say, ‘Why don’t you help me create a space?’”
The other reason is more dialogical. What skills do educators have or lack that allow or don’t allow emotions to come to surface? If a space is a safe space, a lot of the time we conflate a space where there is no tension to be what we need. A space where we ignore the difficult stuff isn’t the answer. A radically uncomfortable space isn’t the answer, either. But I know from group processes that this storming phase of group work—that groups have to be in—this place of discomfort is needed to get to a place of cohesion. We need to be able to facilitate dialogues in a space that youth have decided is the space for them to feel comfortable. Then, conversations need to occur in that space: emotions can come up, difficult conversations can occur. Get us to a place of cohesion.
What is so impressive about chapter four in particular, but the book in general, is that any doubts you have--for example, “I could give students the voice and the opportunity to shape the room, but that’s going to take time, and that’s time that I could be spending instructing. I could be helping with skills around my content...”--you’ve gone on to show that: student voice is the skill. Their participation is helping grow their skills faster and be more productive.
What skills stood out to you in terms of the things students developed as they went through this process with you?
There are skills that students developed and skills that students had. I learned a lot about the skills that students had that I might not have seen before.
Students were putting the microphone in a specific place so that there would be some ability to have privacy. If I put the mic in a specific way, one where I am facing all the other students, then all eyes are on me while I’m sharing. But, if I’m facing this corner wall nook, I’m away from everything else. So students knew how to create a pocket of security within a room.
",,,they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others..."
But also, this act of sharing and being heard within the studio, students valued it on a personal level, but then they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others; which is something hip hop says, “each one teach one.” Youth saying, “Hey, this space is really great for us. We could use this space for freshmen when they come next year.” Youth were starting to think about how the studio itself was not just a space for them to process or work through whatever they needed to, but then [how it] could become this large component of school culture and could shift policy and practices within the school to make it more safe and inclusive for all students that come into the school building.
There was self-advocacy, the ability for youth to look out for each other—to showcase empathy and compassion for their peers, and to show they have this knowledge already.
I’ve had schools that have tried so hard to create a nice transition program for youth that are coming into the school building. While students working inside the studio figured out a more appropriate and valuable process within a couple weeks. When we relinquish power, everything happens, because youth already have a lot of the skills that we think they need to develop. Maybe they can be refined, and built upon, and explored in new ways, but the core of those behaviors exist within youth already, and that is very humanistic. We just need to create the conditions for those to then shine and be cultivated further.
Creating Bridges & Fostering Connections
You spoke about collaboration. Another question from our poet in residence, Jean: Have you noticed that creating space at school translates to creating space in the wider community? How can students owning their space exist outside of the school building?
I think that this kind of a space invites parts of youth that historically have been relegated to only exist outside of the building to come into the building. I might love hip hop, and love the cypher, but I’ve got to go do that somewhere else. Maybe I even cut school to go to a cypher or go hang out with my friends and rap. Because those forms of who I am are not welcomed in that school. So now we say—you can enter this space; which not only upholds part of who youth are outside of school, but it also naturally creates bridges to foster connections.
I’ve had parents come for parent meetings and see a studio in the corner of the office and be like, “Hey, you know I make beats,” and then offer to do workshops outside of school. I’ve had DJs reach out who are in the local community that heard student’s songs on Soundcloud somehow, and say, “Hey, I was a student in the Bronx, too. I wish we had this when I was in school. Let me come and do some work with your students.” The community will come. “If you build it they will come” [Field of Dreams].
If you create the confines for this to occur. If you validate and appreciate the skills—that youth and community, youth and families have, the assets they have—and you allow them to exist within the school, then all of the ones that exist around it—the ancillary partners, collaborators, stakeholders—they’ll come. They will flock towards the school. I’ve heard time and again from parents and others that came into the school, “I wish we had this when I was in school.”
This is again in the Bronx, where a lot of my research is done. Parents that were saying that were the same age as the students I work with in the 70s and 80s. They resonated with the culture in a huge way and loved seeing it in the school. The community was ready for it. We just weren’t ready for it. The school, the education system weren’t ready for it. So once you open that door, it’s all going to come in as long as you’re authentically engaging in it. How do you do this from an authentic place? I think those connections form and youth are upheld and their communities are upheld when you invite hip hop to exist within the school.
Opening Doors to Inherent Community Builders
The book is really good at talking about realness and authenticity--and helping the reader to understand what that means.
Part of what you are talking about also connects to something coming up. We will be having a discussion with Lazerbeak & Ilan Blanck on the podcast: they are teaching us how to build community. In having those conversations, we realized we don’t teach our students how to build the community they are desperate for. At every age level, they want to know how to belong to one, and we don’t teach them how to create one.
The work you did empowering students--showing them how to collaborate--you were teaching them how to create a community. Was that intentional? A happy byproduct? Would you have any advice to help other schools in being more purposeful in teaching young people to create communities?
Again, I would return to something I was saying before, which is that the hip hop community understands in a very deep and personal way how to create community. I don’t think it is teaching youth to create community as it's calling on the power and potential of hip hop to foster community.
When the Bronx was literally burning and falling apart, rival gang leaders said, “We’re not going to do this any more. Let’s form communities.” They came together in the midst of the chaos that surrounded it to chart a path forward and process. That is the origin of hip hop.
I like to think sometimes of the studio work as a microcosm of that much larger process. School isn’t an inviting place: it's kind of all falling apart. I’ve worked with a lot of young people who were traditionally struggling, or at risk, or however the school wanted to frame them (even though that’s a deficit way of framing our youth); then the youth came together to create community—to make sense of all of the chaos that is surrounding them. It wasn’t super intentional to form community. The intention was: let’s make a mixtape—let’s make a studio. Through doing something that was inherently connected to hip hop, through creating some physical product connected to hip culture, that community formed.
Facilitating as a group counselor, [I] naturally processed things and worked through tensions to build cohesion. I operated with a group counseling mindset, which naturally is about fostering community.
Again, I cannot understate that youth are hungry for connection: they’re hungry for community building. Yet, there are never—or seldom—authentic ways for community to be fostered. We’re asking youth to build community inside a sterile classroom where they’ve never learned real things about each other and they don’t know their teacher very well. That kind of environment doesn’t pull on the innate community building skills and tactics that youth have been given as a result of identifying with hip hop. When you allow hip hop to come in, a community is built. It is overly simplistic, but it is inherent, so it will happen whether or not intentional about it. It’s a cool thing.
Next week, you can look forward to part two of our interview with Ian Levy.
A taste of what to expect: it opens with the statement, "One of the nice things about talking to you is that you make my mind jump to places that I wasn’t anticipating."
Excited? We are...
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.