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.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
I had the pleasure this week of working with a third-grade teacher when our conversation turned to the distance learning we did this year. She shared a powerful takeaway. For her, the gem she honed in on was that she now had a better understanding of what students’ lives are like at home, seeing as she bore witness to certain at-home distractions, had to work more closely with parents as they worked together to keep students engaged, and as she became a sounding board for some guardians to share frustrations regarding discipline issues and learning struggles. Moving forward, this teacher shared that she wants to maintain that better understanding of the complex layers that students and families are navigating outside of school, as they have a direct impact on students’ engagement, behaviors, and learning abilities within school walls.
This got me thinking. There have been many discussion lately about the ‘learning loss’ that has occurred during the past year as we’ve been navigating ever-changing educational structures. Simply do a search for ‘learning loss’ and one will quickly discover that there has become an obsession with how Coronavirus has supposedly created a dip in our youths’ knowledge and skill growth.
While there may be truth to the idea that some of the types of skills that typical students may have typically attained in a previously typical school year could have been lost, have we not learned from the atypical nature of this past school year?
Looking for answers, the Third Eye Education team and I took to social media—asking educators and parents to share their thoughts on what we learned during this past year that we want to be sure not to devalue. In this online conversation, the following clear themes emerged.
The Learnings from Teaching During Covid-19 That Many Wish to Maintain
Inequity Awareness & Efforts to Create Balance
In many ways, teaching during a Coronavirus outbreak brought forth inequities (or at least an awareness of them) and, in some cases, fast-tracked solutions.
As students started to need to learn from home, it became clear who did not have access to computers and/or at-home-internet. Many of these students had likely been negatively impacted by these truths in past academic years, specifically in regards homework expectations, but as students shifted to all schoolwork being done at home, suddenly districts strove to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, along with other creative solutions. As we find ourselves seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, let’s be sure to maintain this awareness and continue to adjust as needed to support our students. Returning to in-building school doesn’t instantly place all students on an equal level—we need to maintain this awareness even as we come back together.
This year we’ve had a window into students’ home lives in ways we have not in the past, which has increased empathy and allowed for adjustments. Some students have learning environments full of distractions while others have a quiet place to study and focus. Some students have parents who can help them with their homework, while others (due to the time constraints or the specific skill ability of those living in the home) may not. Some students have responsibilities, such as taking care of siblings, while others do not. This imbalance is one teachers are able to continue to adjust for, as long as we maintain the awareness.
Other such discrepancies uncovered this past year to which adjustments were made in some schools included:
Flexibility, Autonomy, & Focus on Individual Need
Covid-19 created a constant need to adjust. Systems had to keep shifting as we learned more, as the virus morphed, as vaccines became available. So did the methodology used in many classrooms.
Particularly in the spring of 2020, asynchronous opportunities for learning became a must for many learners as their schools and families adjusted to spending most of their time indoors and at home. While not always ideal, and certainly not best for all learners, it did become clear that some students learned better this way, at least on occasion, in certain contexts, or in specific content areas. Therefore, we need to maintain this as an option when possible: when it makes sense to, consider utilizing a flipped classroom approach, experimenting with outdoor learning spaces, and supporting online/hybrid courses. (In fact, last year I taught Creative Writing in a hybrid structure: in-person three days a week, writing and one-on-one conferencing twice a week—a perfect balance for such a course.)
Other flexible environment suggestions emerged as well. Due to safety concerns, buildings got creative in what classrooms and shared spaces looked like:
Similarly, the realities that learning doesn’t always happen at the same pace and in the same order for students was highlighted during this past school year. As we have the opportunity to adjust back into more traditional educational structures, educators will want to maintain this realization. One way to do this moving forward is to consider creating more of a ROWE (results only work environment) or adjusting the focal points of what we teach.
Amber Henry, a teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, noted that this malleability has helped students grow skills in the areas of “resilience, grit, flexibility, and technology independence.” These may not be skills we see on a traditional academic report card, but they are exactly the skills we want them to grow none-the-less. Such skills will surely help them grow academically in the years to come.
Other new flexibility, autonomy, and individualization made this year include:
In such a complex year, everyone has been navigating life differently than they likely did in years past. What that looked like, or how it impacted each individual, varied. This led to an increase in empathy in schools in ways that many had never seen before. Students and staff were often reminded to “be proactive about spending time with people [they] care about,” district leaders and teachers exuded more patience, teachers wove more coping and planning skills into their teaching rather than simply making one-size-fits all structures for students to follow.
In Think Again, Adam Grant’s newest book, he notes that “we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.” If nothing else, Coronavirus has illustrated how rapidly changing our world really is, and has forced educators to rethink certain aspects of how we run our schools and support our learners. As the concern around the virus subsides, let’s not lose the power that rethinking can have.
Grant goes on to state that, “questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong.” This is not an easy feat, as “we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones,” but there is no denying that it’s the new views that are the ones often helping us move forward into a world we don’t yet understand.
Is ‘learning loss’ really the concern we should be having? Or, should we be concerned that we may lose the learning we’ve gained from such an atypical school year?
by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
by Heather M. F. Lyke
It’s almost June: a month full of farmers’ markets, graduation parties, and fairs. (If we're lucky, this summer we will have all of that again.) June is also the month of Pride (read about the origin of Pride and other such details here in this CNN article).
Spring and summer are a great time to reflect on our educational practices. Combine that with Pride Month in June, and it’s only fitting to reflect on how our practices specifically impact our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families. How can we as educators work toward a space where all—including our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families—feel safe and welcome in our classrooms and schools?
To compile a list of ideas on this topic, I anonymously surveyed three dozen LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies, many of whom are current or former students of schools in Southeast Minnesota (SEMN) and some of whom currently work in SEMN schools. I looked for what themes arose from their feedback, and resoundingly these were the four key takeaways:
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I work with everyone in my role at Dover-Eyota schools, both in classrooms and outside of them. Collaborativly, staff and I work with students, or we meet to plan for future work with students: anything to help students grow. This year, whether it be during an online check-in or over an outdoor beer after work, conversations have been particularly interesting. This week alone, four staff have made note of how much more they are grinding their teeth this year versus past years. I can relate.
I also grind my teeth. Five years ago, it was so bad a doctor said I needed to wear a stint on my bottom teeth at night to relax my jaw muscles at night: that stint lasted me four years. Last spring, I had a new one made--less than twelve months later, I have litterally cracked my stint because the night grinding and jaw tension has increased that much during this pandemic. But doesn't that crack simply highlight my humanity?
This has been a school year like no other. Our staff, students, and community are having to navigate more stress and more negativity than many have had to process in years past. Knowing that, what can we do?
For that, we lean on Amit Sood:
With the pump installed and the radon back to less than 2.0 pCi/L, our sleep quality crawled back to normal. Then I had a brilliant idea--why not take radon levels down to zero? Just to compensate for the years of radiation. Few quick clicks on the internet, and I knew that wasn’t possible. Radon is part of the natural environment. Its level can be reduced, but not eliminated.
It turns out this is true for most other toxins. The normal blood mercury level is less than 10 micrograms/liter. It isn't zero. Even if you never enjoyed grilled mackerel or a tuna sandwich, you still will have some mercury in your body. The same is true for lead, arsenic, aluminum, and now micro-plastics.
“Isn’t that true also for negative thoughts?” I thought.
Every week I think thoughts I would rather not think. Being alive is being imperfect.
Here are three ways you can leverage these insights:
- Accept and embrace your negative thoughts, knowing that they are universal and also because they serve a purpose. Rational fears keep you safe. Healthy envy can push you to work harder. A resilient mind has space for both positive and negative. In fact, extreme positive can be a net negative.
- Just as you can mitigate high mercury or lead levels, you can decrease your negative thoughts if they are usurping too much space. Fill your mind with gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, meaning, and hope, and you’ll see toxic anger, fear, and envy exiting your headspace.
- Have compassion for those mired in negativity. They may have faced a rough tide in the past, may have vulnerable genotype, and more. Deep down, they are hurting. Your compassionate engagement will help their self-worth and might start their journey toward freedom and healing.
If you agree with the preceding, then...
Here is your challenge:
Just for today, choose to accept one mildly annoying aspect of one person in your life. Remember that an excellent first step to help others improve is to accept them as they are. And also, that people don’t like to be improved; they want to be validated.
Dr. Sood, my dentist (and my pocketbook) thank you for this. I suspect my colleagues' dentists will be thanking you, too.
Dr. Amit Sood is one of the world's leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and the creator of the Resilient Option program. He has also athored many articles and books, including The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.