IN 1996, WHEN TIMOTHY JONES EMBARKED UPON a career change and started his first teaching job as a creative writing instructor, he found himself in unchartered territory. "I wasn't well-versed in classic literature at the time," he says. "All I really knew was hip-hop." So the admittedly underprepared instructor grabbed lyrics from Tupac Shakur and used them as springboards for writing activities for his teenage students. "My colleagues thought I was crazy, but the response I received from my students let me know that I was onto something."
More than a decade later, Jones, now director of the Teen Program at Martha's Table, a nonprofit that serves at-risk communities in Washington, D.C., continues to use hip-hop as a literacy and educational tool. He's developed an initiative called "Analyze That," where high-school students analyze themes and lyrics from contemporary hip-hop songs and hypothesize the impact that the songs' messages have on their adolescent development. "My students were really surprised that they could study hip-hop in depth," says Jones, "and in the process they become introduced to a new side of themselves."
Jones isn't the first teacher to bring hip-hop into an educational environment in order to connect with today's youth. To be sure, any number of colleges and universities today are offering courses on hip-hop culture. But studying this material is still not a widespread activity among educators who work with high-school--aged and younger students.
Educators like Marcella Runell are trying to change that. A doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts and adjunct faculty member at Bank Street College of Education, Runell began writing about the fledgling hip-hop education movement when she noticed innovative work from various teachers across the country. She connected with Martha Diaz, a former New York City public-school teacher and president of the Hip-Hop Association, an organization committed to using hip-hop culture as a tool for social change and to serving educators who want to reach youth through the culture. "Martha had a dream about creating a collection of resources that educators could use," says Runell, "adding to the research I already had, I began e-mailing teachers around the country and started an online community of educators to share what they were doing with hip-hop." The result is The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook: Volume 1, a comprehensive collection of lesson plans (that range from...