As a 24-year-old teacher with brown skin, no gray hair and a slang-infused vocabulary, I am rarely seen by my students as a sage on a stage. But that’s OK, because my main concern when teaching is building an inclusive environment for my students. I don’t think there is enough being done in higher education to encourage creative, innovative teaching. As a student, I consistently wished for a teacher who provided explanations that I could relate to. I saw that what distinguished the great teachers was simply their ability to ensure a learning opportunity for all.
Every student helps me teach by sharing her or his experiences related to a topic. One topic for which this approach is especially helpful is environmental justice; most Clemson students grew up physically segregated from the non-white poor areas, which carry the burdens of pollution. Yet when students share diverse perspectives in class, someone inevitably has firsthand experience in an environmental justice hotspot. As one of the students said in their assessment of the course: “I was unaware of some of the environmental justice issues affecting the less fortunate, and discussing the issues from different viewpoints helped me understand.” As the issue becomes more tangible for everyone in the class, the future leaders of our state are better prepared to solve our local issues.
For interdisciplinary topics like environmental justice, I try to balance depth and context while using constructivist approaches which allow students to build their own understanding. I help students find a foundation within themselves for their newly developed knowledge. At the beginning of my class periods, students hesitate to answer questions related to their assigned reading and videos. By the end of a successful period, engaged students are standing up debating solutions derived from ideas communicated in their homework. I love getting comments like these: “It was interactive and memorable,” and “The classroom involvement and group activities as opposed to an hour and a half of lecturing really helped me to get a grasp of concepts and their applications.”
Rap music is part of the world’s most listened to genre of music (hip-hop). Those who listen to rap know that it is not all about drugs, sex, money and basketball. Rap began as a way to tell the story of neighborhoods plagued by pollution and other social inequalities. Many of the most influential and successful songs today continue this trend. By rapping in my lesson on environmental justice I was able to transform the classroom into my childhood neighborhood where food was scarce, toxins were abundant and people felt powerless. Students were surprised and quickly became submerged in their new environment.
Rap lyrics are designed to be a glue which hold together various bits of information so that listeners can think critically and remember. When students say, “I loved the rap — it helped drive home the ideas of social injustice,” it makes the risk of trying new techniques worthwhile. While students may not understand what it feels like to live where I grew up, they can surely relate to the concept of hunger at some level. Thousands of views on Facebook is cool, but hearing students say, “The rap and everyone being involved made this a very memorable class” is the only acknowledgment I need to continue coming up with better ways to teach.