From Mozart to Mos Def: Hip Hop in the Classroom

Not just anyone can vividly trace a thread weaving through a zebra’s stripes, a partly crumbling brick wall, a Jackson Pollock painting, a Mozart piano sonata, Dr. Seuss’ “Fox in Socks,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” and even a rap duet by Mos Def and Slick Rick.

CU-Boulder’s Adam Bradley can, and the students along for his literary road trip seem to relish the ride. That’s the point. Bradley, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, is on a mission: to unlock the students’ innate understanding of literary forms and, with luck, to unleash a desire to go to college.
During a recent class at Denver’s Montbello High School, Bradley homed in on patterns. In his examples—Pollock, Mozart, Dr. Seuss and Brooks—patterns and breaks in patterns are intentional and artistic. After listening to “Auditorium,” by Mos Def and Slick Rick, students in CU alum Alison Corbett’s English class at Montbello split into four groups and spent a half-hour trying to formulate the most insightful analysis of the rap song.
This is “Hip Hop in the Classroom,” Bradley’s initiative to enhance diversity on the CU-Boulder campus. The program is funded by an $8,000 fellowship from the College of Arts and Sciences. 
The program links Bradley’s own scholarly research of hip hop with efforts to diversify curricula in metro-area middle schools and high schools, particularly those whose students include ethnic groups under-represented in higher education.
Montbello, a low-performing school scheduled for closure in 2014, fits this criterion. But the students in this class are engaged and excited, intensely debating the patterns they hear in “Auditorium.”
Before class, Bradley had explained his lesson plan: “Patterns are an essential way of understanding literary forms, whether the patterns are of rhyme or rhythm or repetition, they show us how literature is shaped.”
Precociously, Bradley noticed the overlap of hip and hoary literature.
“From a very early age, I was struck by the connection between rap lyrics and more conventional poetry,” Bradley said. His grandmother taught him at home until high school, introducing him to Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge.
“I remember reading those poets as a 10-, 11-year-old and then listening to the music that was in my ears at the time—De La Soul, Public Enemy, artists like that—and seeing that there was a bridge between what these disparate poetic communities were up to.”
This piece originally appeared in the Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine. Read the full story…