By MICHAEL DOGGETT
I used to be a non-believer when I heard people talking about teachers making “magic” in the classroom. That was until the first time one of my students performed an original rap song in front of a group of their peers with the audience reciting every lyric by heart.
It all started during Empower Hour. This is a time during the school day at Hallie Wells Middle School where teachers get to teach any subject we want. Students get to select which classes they go to, and they get to just learn for the sake of learning. In the Hip Hop Empower Hour we analyze songs, write original lyrics, and practice performing them. Then once a week students sign up for after-school recording sessions. By the end of February this year, we had recorded fourteen different songs that we uploaded to our Soundcloud channel (Soundcloud.com/halliewellshiphop) and burned onto blank CDs.
Next we began passing out “The Hallie Wells Mixtape” to students and staff for free, as long as they agreed to come to the Hip Hop Showcase on Friday night, March 22. We ended up handing out over 100 CDs. We also arranged to have our music played on the PA system during class transition times. By the time March 22 finally rolled around, students and staff together were singing our songs in the hallways chanting, “I got the water, splash! I got the water, splash!”
The night of the performance was electric. We had close 200 people of all ages who came out to support our program. Students (and staff) performed 20 original songs. All of the performers did a fabulous job, but there were definitely a few highlights that stuck out.
A month or so before the concert, Rob Dahlin, our school’s band director came across a Youtube video of a tuba player performing with a hip hop artist. Having already discussed the musical genius of 6th grader Franciska Deutcheu with earlier in the year, he suggested that I encourage her to play with our hip hop group. He was thinking about it for next year, but I gave Franciska the CD with the songs, and three days later she had taught herself the notes on the tuba. The moment when she came out onto the stage with her sousaphone (graciously loaned to us by Clarksburg High School) to perform “Water” with Lil Maat and Ringz (Maat Garnett and Tyler Scholl) was truly incredible.
Another highlight and special moment of the night was provided not by a student, but by a member of our school’s building service team. During our after school rehearsals, Mr. Gillison would often swing by to provide words of encouragement. If we were lucky, sometimes he would even grab the microphone and freestyle for us. When I invited Mr. Gillison to perform this year in our Showcase, he was just as excited as the middle schoolers were. The positive energy he brought to his performance was off the charts and truly shows how hip hop can bring communities together.
8th grader Riley Nelson performed a song she wrote about the New Zealand shooting tragedy, a mere 6 days after the event occurred. 6th graders Chay Julien and Talea Haines each wrote songs about the transition to middle school while inspiring each other along the way and practically becoming best friends in the process. Drift and Retro (Eric Lawrence and Wisdom Martin) also became an iconic duo this year. They performed their song “Cautious” about the dangerous world they see around them. We even had a former student, Yung Tappboy (Latif Holmes) come back to do a song with current 8th grader 1KPrince (Raleigh Shaw).
For so many students, our second annual Hip Hop Showcase was a night they will never forget. And the magic just keeps on growing. Rogue Flame (Kevin Song) an 8th grader who performed three songs in this year's Showcase, wrote me a thank you letter afterwards. It warmed my heart to discover that he plans on starting his own hip hop group at his high school next year.
There’s something special and unique that happens when a diverse group of adolescents put all their energy into supporting each other through music. It’s like an anti-bullying spell. Many of the students who performed songs in the Showcase this year have been victims of bullying in the past. Seeing them receive so much positive energy and encouragement from a crowd of their peers could only be described as magical.
Michael Doggett is a language teacher at Hallie Wells Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools. Connect with Stone on Twitter at @MrDoggettRMS