A student asked me recently why I teach English and the directness of the question reminded me of the critic Northrup Frye’s assertion that “the simplest questions are not only the hardest to answer, but the most important to ask” (Frye 1). So I decided to spend some time re-examining this question I’ve circled back to over and over again since coming to Forest Ridge.
I teach English because I love to read and write, and I believe reading and writing are two of the most powerful experiences we can have as humans. Both have enriched my life and I believe they have made me a better person. I want reading and writing to bring such positive powers into the lives of my students as well. To read is to engage, to think, to expand, to become more than what we were before reading. To write is to unlock, to create, and to commune. It may sound a bit lofty, or even perhaps ridiculous, but I want my students to become more human through their use of these unique human creations of reading and writing.
In eighth grade English, we are working with Romeo and Juliet, and I am asking my students to be curious about and engage with writing that is over 400 years old and to consider the ways in which those old ideas are relevant today. In one of the introductory lessons, we watched a Tedx video in which the emcee Akala outlines the link between Shakespeare and Hip-Hop. He starts with what may be the more expected point – that the use of rhythm, by both Shakespeare and today’s Hip-Hop artists, is “a way to understand what is being said…to communicate feeling” because in both forms “tonality, the way you say what you’re saying, the mood with which you say it, the rhythm with which you say it, is as important as what you’re actually saying” (Akala). This link often feels like the most immediately useful to the eighth graders as they latch onto the strategies of listening to Shakespeare’s words and reading out loud to better understand the text, but the second link Akala discusses in the video is the one I find more important in the long run – the recognition of both Shakespeare and the best Hip-Hop artists as important and rightful “custodians of knowledge.”
Akala points out that many people today associate Shakespeare with an intellectual elitism and other people question the authentic authorship of his plays because of a modern disbelief that such genius could come from a man that didn’t attend university (Akala) or who “didn’t have enough experience of the right kind” (Frye 42). There is, from some, an assumption that he is not a rightful “custodian of knowledge,” and yet, Shakespeare was intelligent, prolific, and continues to be majorly influential in both our daily and our literary use of the English language. The same skepticism is sometimes directed towards Hip-Hop by people who forget, or don’t bother to know, that an essential element of Hip-Hop is knowledge (Clark 6). Akala points out that in the early days of Hip-Hop, it was normal to be “boastful about one’s intellect” and that, like Shakespeare, early Hip-Hop artists decided that knowledge was their right, intellect was their gift, and music was their mode.
As Akala concludes, the ultimate success of society relies on the minds of the individuals in the society, and we need to be thankful for those who came before us, Shakespeare and RZA for instance, who claimed their responsibility to spread their intellect. Each of the minds in my classroom deserves to access this intellect, to access Shakespeare, poetry, music, history, culture; they deserve high expectations; and they’re responsible for becoming the best thinkers they can be and for owning their roles as custodians of knowledge as they interact with the world around them.
Clark, Lamont. MCs: A Children’s Guide to the Origins of Hip Hop. Smashwords Edition, 2013.
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination (Midland Book). New impression, Indiana University Press, 1964.
“Hip-Hop & Shakespeare? Akala at TEDxAldeburgh.” YouTube, uploaded by TedXTalks, 7 Dec. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSbtkLA3GrY.