Classroom Perspectives, Writing

That’s a Rap: Using Hip-Hop as a Tool for Learning

That’s a Rap: Using Hip-Hop as a Tool for Learning

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2024 Issue

By Paul Weatherford 

The Hook

I, among other things, define myself as a rapper, and it’s a fact of which my students are all too aware—“Is he really rapping on the first day of school?” I use raps to hook my readers (did it work?), to bring literary characters to life, to commemorate momentous occasions, and, most of all, to inject the world inside and outside of the classroom with a bit of the extraordinary.

Each day that I teach at South High School, I walk into a building that the state department of education deems “failing,” and yet within those walls, I encounter many moments that sing of success, especially in my Creative Writing class. A recent activity that I came up with helped bring hope, community, confidence, and critical thinking to the students. I turned to my good ol’ friend hip-hop to accompany me on this journey and, as it always does, hip-hop brought us together, enhanced our own unique voices, and allowed us to have some fun.

The First Rap Battle

The first lesson I gave my students in rap was to study and imitate the art of bragging. After analyzing some mentor texts, I challenged them to boast about themselves using figurative language and rhyme. They were quite hesitant to do so, not because of a skill deficit in writing, but rather a deficit in their own self-worth.

“But I’m not that great, Mr. Weatherford.”

“I’m not special.”

“I’m not a rapper.”

I thought I’d inject a little competition to see if I could scare up more excitement and creativity. “Next class,” I said, “we will be pairing our best rhymes anonymously for a rap battle.” Nothing like the pressure of an audience to produce results. The students quickly got to work and cooked up some solid lines.

Little did they know that I also gathered several verses from one of the meanest MCs on the Internet: ChatGPT. It’s quite unnerving to see the screen produce a full-blown rap song, a decent one no less, in under 10 seconds. From there, I paired a student-written line with an AI-generated one, and during our next class, students voted on which was better. They also shared their reasons why, as a way to get them thinking about some of the tools and tricks that authors (and robots) use.

Four out of five times, students picked the AI rhymes over the ones from their own classmates. They even picked AI over my own writing, which tempted me to fail them all right then and there. But rather than taking it personally, we decided to use this as a learning experience.

This exercise underscored what I had told students all semester long—at its core, good writing is imitation. For how does AI operate? It reads and analyzes exemplars, effectively imitating and implementing their tricks and tools. This is a practice my Creative Writing class engages in daily.

The AI rap battle also captured the other thing I always say about writing—imitation is only the starting point. Truly great writers do new things, inventive things, and most of all, they put their very selves into every line on the page. AI can’t do that… yet.


Rap Battle Part 2: Meaning-Making

I wanted to give my students another chance to battle it out against AI in the rap arena, but this time I changed the nature of the contest. Rather than bragging about themselves, they would need to write rhymes that bragged on South High. Surely, we could outperform AI on this subject.

Students at South High School are all too aware of the many negative narratives surrounding our school, and class discussion confirmed this. When asked to list words that describe South, they said, “Ghetto, bad, druggy, dumb, and poor,” to name a few. I pressed them, wondering, “Are these your words, or are they words that others use to describe our school?”

That question stumped them for a second and, upon deeper reflection, the students recognized how the words of others had come to color their own perceptions of the school. They had also experienced South High as, “Supportive, fun, and a home.” I capitalized on these positive descriptors, letting the students know that now they were in the right state of mind to get into a rap.

After our first round of typing “braggy” rhymes, I decided to inject a little artificial intelligence into the equation once again. We were all slightly disheartened to see ChatGPT cook up a full-blown rap about our school with verses, a chorus, and a bridge in approximately 20 seconds. No less than that, it also made specific references to the windy nature of our state, our school mascot, and our colors. The look on my students’ faces contained a question: “Why should we bother to write when AI can do this?” Luckily, there was another expression to be read there, a determination to beat the machine.

And beat the machine they did! While crafting their rhymes, the students had maintained, “We can’t just ignore the ‘bad’ stuff that happens at our school.” To my surprise, they found a way to incorporate those negative aspects, weaving their verses with authenticity and heart that was missing from the AI-generated rap.

Whether it was Sarah’s clever use of our feeder junior high mascot, the firebird, to talk about students rising from the ashes and evolving through their educational journeys; or Zack’s shrewd observation that rainbows and butterflies are an illusion, and South can take pride in keeping it real; or Elisa, who coined South as a perfectly imperfect institution. In the students’ lines I felt pride and I saw success, the growth of confidence and skill, and most important of all, young people making meaning of the world they know and the worlds they dream of. What a gift it is to witness something like that.

Our so-called ghetto, bad, druggy, dumpy, and poor school made the news several times in the last year alone: for our students’ outstanding charity work, for our championship cheer team, for the death of a beloved student killed in a reckless driving accident, and for a tragic incident of student violence. While these stories work to define us, so too do the brilliant rhymes produced by my Creative Writing class, although the chance of them making headlines is slimmer.

Fostering Hope

Over the course of one single class period, one school day, and across one school year, we educators bear witness to a full spectrum of experiences. From that mesmerizing moment when a learner finds their voice, to seconds later, when a student refuses to engage in pleasantries, let alone learning. It is enough to make any brain bend.

To add to the dilemma, the collective sentiment of educators indicates that this job is only getting harder. There’s no denying that we face unprecedented challenges. You need merely glance at the news to see a weary world troubled by seemingly goliath calamities. But as is often the case amid such turmoil, the cure is good teachers—those who hold, produce, and share hope.

I firmly believe that writing is the best tool we have to foster this hope. My goal as a teacher is to expose students to a variety of voices, styles, and frames for writing so that they can properly identify where they belong—so they can create a playground of their own, and do the necessary work of excavation. And most importantly, by teaching students to wield writing as a tool, we can empower them to compose their own narratives, fight against prejudice, and change the world. That’s true engagement, and that will always be my song… or rather, my rap.

*Student names have been changed.

Paul Weatherford has taught at all levels from 7–12 over the past 10 years. In addition to completing a Master’s degree in English Literature, he recently won Teacher of the Year for Laramie County School District #1, and was a TOY finalist for the state of Wyoming. Inspiring students to see the magic of words is his life’s work, second only to being a husband and father.