Northgate students present at “Hip Hop Ed”

After a rewarding day at Columbia University, Northgate students take in views of Manhattan from "Top of the Rock,"an observation deck atop the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Back: Ryan McFarland, Joseph Popendieker, Callia Barrie, Grace Amick, Brandon Green; Front: Madeleine Ebaugh, Kelsey King, Alayna Manion, Dominique Clark-Enos.

Back in the day -- way back in the day -- William Shakespeare relied upon the iambic pentameter format style when composing his plays.

Remember in your senior year of high school? The teacher’s introduction to the 10-syllable lines, such as the famous line that begins the play, “Richard III”: “Now is the winter of our discontent…”?

The opening four lines of that play are written in iambic pentameter, but just one line clarifies the reference to Shakespeare and serves as a lead-in to the idea that new styles and formats of written and spoken expression have been evolving for centuries, one of the latest -- like it or not/understand it or not -- being hip hop.

As everyone under the age of 30 knows, hip hop is not limited to specific rhyme scheme or syllable count, thereby making it attractive to many younger writers of poetry, and, of course, to song lyrics.

And nobody locally of that age group knows the impact of hip hop better than a group of Northgate students who ended their local school year by presenting projects June 1 at the Third Annual Hip Hop Ed Conference at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City.

Under the guidance of Jeffrey Smith, Northgate’s 10th grade English teacher, nine students presented their lyrical narrative projects to other educators who are interested in using hip hop to engage students in historical nonfiction and to assess student understanding of English Language Arts (ELA) concepts.

Smith learned of the conference from Northgate’s curriculum coordinator, Shaun Tomaszewski. He then applied to the conference to present, with his application accepted by Columbia and his proposal approved for presentation.

Smith said that “The groups chosen to go on the trip wrote about Christopher Columbus, Pocahontas and John Smith, and Olaudah Equiano, a member of the Sons of Africa who campaigned against slavery. Each group read pre-18th Century texts about the aforementioned people, and then they were tasked to research another perspective to the stories. Many chose to tell their narrative from a slightly different point of view than the textbook.”

Students were asked to retell old historical stories by writing song lyrics.

“The lesson teaches poetic techniques and shows a student's ability to synthesize information. Students planned, researched, wrote, and recorded their songs. They didn't have to write hip hop songs, but many did use the “Hamilton” (referring to the hit Broadway musical) style of lyrical narrative,” Jeffrey said.

Smith and his wife, Nicole, also a Northgate English teacher who next year will take on the duties as assistant principal, served as chaperones to the four 11th grade and five 10th grade students.

As Smith explained, “They presented their lyrical narrative projects to other educators who are interested in using hip hop to engage students in historical nonfiction and assess student understanding of ELA concepts. Students were also able to attend other conference sessions that centered on poetry slams (competition in poetry reading), integrating diverse texts to the curriculum, and using hip hop to engage students of all backgrounds. The keynote speakers included Dr. Christopher Emdin, Dr. Edmund Adjapong [professors at Columbia University and Seton Hall University, respectively], and Omari Hardwick, and Derek Luke [professional actors].

Nicole Smith had high praise for the students, as well as for her husband, as the organizer of the project.

“I could not have been more proud of our kids. The students were so captivating and the educators in the room were so excited about the perspective our students were sharing. It was wonderful to see our students talk about wanting to research and go beyond the textbook that was telling them to find other perspectives from history. Mr. Smith really hit a home-run with the project he designed because it made kids curious and critical thinkers. It made them want to learn more than they were being provided. I also enjoyed the pizza and the sights of the city, but the highlight was seeing our students blossom into high quality presenters who made a positive impression on a room filled with educators.”

The Northgate students’ projects will be used as models for upcoming 10th grade students as they start the lyrical narrative project in the next school year.

Over 100 educators attended the conference, along with more than 50 students. They also held a “Science Genius” competition at the end of the day where students competed to perform hip hop songs about scientific concepts.

Nicole Smith said that in addition to the conference, students found time to take in city highlights, starting at Battery Park to view the Statue of Liberty.

“We then walked through Wall Street and past Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried. We also made a stop at the 9/11 Memorial and the Freedom Tower before heading to Times Square. After a highlight dinner at Ray's Pizza, we were able to see the city lights from the ‘Top of the Rock’ at Rockefeller Center and walk around Times Square at dark.”

And the students’ take on the experience of presenting their ideas at one of the top universities in the country?

Sophomore Kelsey King said, "I learned more about public speaking and the impact progressive education can have on the student body."

Sophomore Alayna Manion had similar views of the experience. "I enjoyed being able to present what we learned to teachers who might use our resources in their classrooms."

Madeleine Ebaugh, a junior, found value in everything offered to the students in such a limited period of time. "I enjoyed being in a diverse city and learning more about how to speak in front of a crowd effectively."