Using hip hop to teach language arts

Michael Grandsoult

At St. Maria Goretti Catholic School in Scarborough, Ont., a group of Grade 8 students have wrapped up their lunch break and are settling in for language arts class with their teacher, Michael Grandsoult.

But this is no ordinary language arts class — and Mr. Grandsoult, as his students call him, is no ordinary teacher.

“Mr. Grandsoult, he’s like very free,” Grade 8 student, Gabrielle Agbayani said. News. “He definitely engages us in learning and that definitely made me improve, especially from my online grades until now.”

Thirteen-year-old Marley Warner concurs. “Mr. Grandsoult definitely did make it an easier process, coming back to in-person learning.”

Both students say when it comes to Mr. Grandsoult as a teacher, he stands out from the rest. And here’s why:

When his students returned to class after two years of remote learning (and isolation), Mr. Grandsoult noticed that they were struggling. So to keep them engaged and to make learning fun again, he schooled them.

“My favourite subject to teach is language arts — which is an ideal opportunity to implement this hip-hop program,” he explained.

A member of a group of ‘hip hop heads’ and teachers, who call themselves the Hip Hop Headucatorz, Grandsoult says they founded the program to teach students through the genre, in a culturally relevant manner.

“Other traditional teachers might use Shakespeare poetry,” said Grandsoult. “But there’s great poets in hip hop too. And you could get the same figurative language, reading for deeper meaning, simile, metaphor from good writers. If you do research and pick the best of the best hip hop poets, you could find just as rich texts to have deeper discussions with.”

Modelling hip hop in the classroom, Grandsoult says he sometimes uses his own compositions, pieces from the Hip Hop Headucatorz or sometimes other well-known hip-hop artists to educate his students on everything from Black Canadian history to reading comprehension to other cultural groups.

Students then move on to write and recite their own creative pieces, performed in front of the class, or shared school-wide over the PA system or at school assemblies.

Grandsoult’s own AfriCanuck song, with a catchy hook, is often used as a template for the students to make other remixes.

Swapping Shakespearean iambic pentameter for learning modern-day rhymes is something students have responded well to. Warner says it’s been especially helpful after a year of feeling disengaged behind a computer screen.

“It makes it easier for us because the lessons are on a topic that I like,” said Warner. “It’s easier for me to write about something I like, obviously. If you don’t like it, then obviously you’re not going to enjoy it.”

Grandsoult says after a difficult two years for students and teachers – weathering this pandemic and the challenges of remote learning – programs like this one, which he implemented a few years ago, are all the more important.

“Especially in these days of isolation and disconnection, art is a great way to tap into our creativity, to kind of heal ourselves, because art is therapy,” said Grandsoult. “The beautiful thing about hip hop and a cypher is it’s a circle, everybody is equal and everybody gets a chance to share and speak, and that’s a great way to help bring us back to that safe space of community — especially when we’ve been lacking it through isolated cubicles.”

If you ask his Grade 8 student, David Bolarinwa, Mr. Grandsoult has accomplished that mission.

“He’s making a difference in many ways,” said Bolarinwa. “Just, encouraging kids that they can be anything they want to be, just as long as they strive every day. And he’s also helping us to become more poetic in writing, and just encouraging us, to keep striving.”