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Slam School: Learning Through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom

reviewed by Christopher Emdin - August 30, 2011

coverTitle: Slam School: Learning Through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom
Author(s): Bronwen Low
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804763666, Pages: 208, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

In contemporary hip-hop education scholarship, two of the most provocative and under-focused upon phenomena yet to make their way into academic discussions are spoken word and slam poetry. The structured critical reflections that occur at slam poetry sessions, and the powerful messages of hip-hop inspired spoken-word poetry, have not been thoroughly interrogated by educational researchers. Bronwen Low takes on this task in her book Slam School, and in so doing, carves out a new space for hip-hop educators. In this space, scholars and educators are invited to interrogate aspects of these artifacts of hip-hop culture, and reflect upon the potential they may have for transforming schools.

While a book review of traditional academic text is a critique and tidy summarization of the text, a book review of a hip-hop education text, particularly if it begins to push the boundaries of existent work in the field, is in many ways a celebration of hip-hop based education. Therefore, I consider this review to be an opportunity to first celebrate and validate, and then also to reflect upon, the contributions to hip-hop based education that Low examines. Rather than critique and summarize, I will re-hash the key aspects of the text. In so doing, I will highlight aspects of the text that may be valuable for the reader and then provide a short description of its limitations.

Low begins the text in a refreshing way by expressing a vulnerability that has become synonymous with both performance and academic research in hip-hop and education. She states clearly, "I am not what you think of as hip-hop," and in so doing, positions this work as particularly valuable because it begins from a place where most hip-hop education research does not: from the vantage point of someone who is admittedly outside or on the margins of, but sees the value of and has a respect for, hip-hop in education. This stance is both refreshing and necessary because scholars in the hip-hop based education domain are often so deeply immersed in the culture and enamored with their own experiences within it, that the powerful work that comes from describing from the outside looking in is lost. Low beautifully paints the etic perspective, and in so doing, uncovers aspects of the work that the insider may overlook by virtue of being so immersed in the culture. The vulnerability that comes from telling the story of slam school from this outsider perspective is further exposed as she references and pulls from her work with Canadian emcees (who are traditionally not the rap artists brought into hip-hop education). Her unique vantage point allows her to interrogate deeply without offending, sharing her unique insight and oftentimes tough critique on traditional schooling and hip-hop without seeming imperious. This is most evident as she addresses hip-hop’s misogyny, race, class, and stereotype as they relate to the classroom, and the complexities of hip-hop language use and misuse in the classroom.

In addition to Low’s unique standpoint, the chief strengths of the book lie in the relationships that “Tim,” the teacher of the slam poetry classes that are the focus of this book, and the resident poet "Rashidah" bring to the slam poetry classroom. In multiple vignettes, the reader gets insight into how Tim, a powerful pedagogue who is an outsider to hip-hop, and Rashidah, who is deeply immersed in hip-hop culture and slam poetry, struggle to bring both of their strengths and deficiencies to life in the classroom while dealing with the many conflicts (with schools, each other, and students) that emerge when youth engage in it.

The other refreshing piece of this work, alluded to earlier, is the focus on spoken word rather than rap. Low does an amazing job weaving in the politics surrounding how spoken work has become more acceptable than rap, and does an even better job explaining why and how both artifacts of hip-hop culture have value for education. To make this point, she explores the relevant literature related to hip-hop and education, “makes her rounds” in referencing just about all established scholars in hip-hop studies, and then ties these references to her observations about the points of tension between hip-hop culture and the structure of contemporary schools.

The work, like any good hip-hop performance, is filled with stories and personalities that jump out of the pages like great artists off the stage, and provide insight into the potential of hip-hop for education. For example, the broad underlying premise that undergirds the book - that sites of conflict, confusion, and controversy are learning opportunities - is one that Low makes throughout the work through stories of youth in the poetry classroom. Low touches upon everything from the possible disconnect between hip-hop youth and African-American educators, to the struggle of using hip-hop vernacular in academic spaces, and she does so from the standpoint of an admirer of hip-hop with a commitment to transformative learning experiences for youth. In each chapter, as she describes a new dimension of the slam poetry classes that the book is based on, she lays out a series of thought provoking questions about the intersections of hip-hop and education that can only be truly captured through the careful weaving of story and research that runs throughout the book.

Low uses the slam poetry classroom to bring visibility to larger issues that plague hip-hop and limit its acceptance in schools. For example, in earlier chapters, she explores the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop through the story of a student whose rap performance was cancelled by the school principal because of an anticipation of cursing and sexual obscenities. At the same time, she interrogates the veiled scripts in rap lyrics and uncovers the multiple interpretations of rap lyrics that even a screening by the school could not uncover. By describing this tension, and many others like it, Low gives the reader various descriptions of issues surrounding language, interpretation, racism, sexism, teaching, and learning, and provides a set of topics for any reader to gain insight on who is interested in hip-hop and education.


Despite Low’s successful attempt to present the potential of the inherent conflict that comes with bringing hip-hop into school, the book could have benefitted from a more thorough analysis of the impact of the tension between hip-hop based education and schools as it relates to the evolution of the teacher, and the resident poet, who must have had to deal with many situations where hip-hopness clashed with the structures of the school. Furthermore, more thorough descriptions of the teaching (the lessons, the activities, the assessments, and the outcomes) would have made the work so much more powerful.

Over all, Slam School should be celebrated. It salutes the established tradition in hip-hop based education, and through the slam poetry classroom and its troubling of the traditional conflicts that educators are all too silent about, it pushes the hip-hop and education agenda forward.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16525, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:50:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Emdin
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER EMDIN is an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as Director of Secondary School Initiatives at the Urban Science Education Center. His research focuses on issues of race, class, and diversity in urban science classrooms, the use of new theoretical frameworks to transform urban education, and urban school reform. His recent publications include: “Affiliation and alienation: Hip-hop, rap and Urban Science Education” in the Journal of Curriculum Studies (2010); “Dimensions of Communication in Urban Science Education” in Science Education (2010); and his first book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-hop generation” with Sense Publishers (2010).
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