This spring, students in the seventh grade took to the Berger Hall theater stage for the second annual Poetry and Hip-Hop Showcase, emceed by alum and hip-hop artist Josh Rowsey. Amidst thumping beats and the appreciative snaps of their peers, students rocked the mike, spitting original raps and passionate spoken word poetry that tackled everything from climate change to bullying, self- discovery to mental health.
The event marked the much- anticipated culmination of a weeks-long interdisciplinary language arts project designed to engage students through self- expression in the thorny social issues they tackle in the classroom and their own lives. Using rap and poetry, students created odes to the unsung and underappreciated, love letters to themselves, and lyrical PSAs about pressing global issues.
“In the seventh grade, we focus a lot on social justice issues, using the framework of educate, advocate, act,” explains seventh- grade teacher and project co-lead Matt Koerner. “This project represents the advocacy piece. We’re teaching students how to raise their voices to speak out, whether for themselves, those who can’t, or on issues that matter to them.”
“Matt and I have taught a lot of poetry in our teaching lives, but intentionally bringing hip-hop into it was new for us,” offers language arts teacher Lucy Dawson, who helped lead the project. “We knew it was going to be super engaging and feel more relevant to our kids—more in their own language, their own idioms.”
“There is so much overlap between hip-hop and poetry. The terminology that Josh uses aligns with the poetry terms we employ in the classroom,” adds Koerner.
For two weeks, students developed their pieces under the close mentorship of Rowsey, a hip-hop artist and activist, and their teachers, garnering feedback from their peers. Initially, Koerner and Dawson had felt some trepidation in asking students to be so vulnerable and open in front of each other (they are middle schoolers, after all). They were pleasantly surprised, however, by the respectful and thoughtful collaboration that unfolded in the classroom.
“From the beginning, Josh set the tone— that this was a safe place, a place where they were going to take intellectual risks, where they may feel embarrassed,” reflects Dawson. “He made that okay, stressing that their friends would have their backs. Every single class started with that, building that kind of trust and faith in each other. And it worked.”
During the final week, students refined their favorite pieces, working closely with Rowsey to “put the piece on its feet” through performative elements: pacing, tone of voice, hand gestures, and body movements that brought their pieces to life on the stage.
“It is so important that our students of color see educators and professional artists that look like them,” offers Koerner. “From day one, when Josh came in, he changed the feeling in the room with his magnetic energy. As an alum of color, he connects with the kids on so many different levels.”
“He listened to them, and they listened to him—connected to him— in a different way than they do us,” continues Dawson. “So many kids were vulnerable about their experiences and their identities. Josh was able to help bring out their voices and give them the confidence to perform their truths in front of the whole seventh grade. I don’t think they would have done it had Josh not been here.”
Dawson, Koerner, and Rowsey are delighted in the Showcase’s success and the support it has received from the entire CA community. They hope it translates into more opportunities to weave hip hop and poetry into campus activities and culture.
Already discussions are taking place about expanding the Showcase to more students and creating a hip-hop and poetry elective in the Upper School. Sixth-grade language arts and world cultures teacher Lauren Bullock, who helped Rowsey to emcee the inaugural Slam and is herself an acclaimed spoken word artist and poet, is interested in bringing a competitive poetry slam team to CA. For Koerner, he’d love to see students start their own CA hip-hop cypher, “a safe space where students of color can express themselves—and anybody’s welcome.”
Check out this year’s Poetry and Hip- Hop Showcase on CA’s Youtube channel: bit.ly/CApoetryhiphop.