Educator Uses Hip Hop To Teach Students About American History

Campbell High School teacher, Justin Ballou was awarded the 2018 Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The sabbatical, gives a New Hampshire teacher a year off with pay and a materials budget to bring a great educational idea to fruition.Van Buren: How long have you been a teacher?

Ballou: I’m currently finishing out my 13th year.

Van Buren: I read that you were awarded the 2018 Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. What does this mean to you?

Ballou: It’s been kind of a long road. I’m always trying to get the kids to push outside of their limits. With any instances of innovation or trial and error you find that you fail a lot more often than you succeed. These small failures have helped build me. They’ve helped build my students. They’ve helped build our relationships together.  It’s been a long time coming.

With the grant coming in, it gives some validation to our ideas and the work that the kids have put in. So, it’s kind of reinvigorating. And now people in the community aren’t seeing this as just another crazy idea. This actually has potential. The short end of it is that it’s very surreal. It feels good to know that people are supporting the work of these kids and supporting my work and believe there’s value in what we’re doing.

Van Buren: I read that your approach is including hip hop music as a way of educating your students. Can you explain more about that?

Ballou: The “Socracademy” project is a way to assess students in a way that was valuable to them. I believe that there’s a need for lecture, there’s a need for studying, traditional concepts and ideals. But there’s so many more things in the world that we can be helping to prepare them for. The best way forward is a more diversified education. We live in a word now where you can invest your energy, time and passion in finding your purpose and doing something that you really value. So, in doing that we need a new way to assess students knowledge, skills and disposition to their behavioral capacity.

Van Buren: How did hip hop come into all of this? 

Justin-Ballou CMS 2
Justin Ballou, high school teacher uses hip hop to educate students. Photo Courtesy of Justin Ballou.

Ballou: I noticed that the kids were really interested in hip hop. There’s a lot that can be taught in kind of that modern ideal. So, how do you use hip hop culture in a creative art form and expression to teach humanities and modern American culture? They want to get creative, they want to build things that are authentic, they want to study stuff that their passionate about. My thought is, is if I can validate learning at high levels using something like hip hop imagine what we can do for things like physics or Latin or regular American History. It’s a culmination of this three-legged stool. If successful it shows that kids can learn what they want to learn, they can validate their learning in creative ways, we can get a clear picture of those kids abilities and prepare them for the world outside of high school.

Van Buren: Who are some of your favorite hip hop artists?

Ballou: It goes in phases. Starting with the Golden Era you got KRS-One. I’ve seen him live twice. He actually comes to New Hampshire to a local bar. He puts on an amazing show. The essence of what hip hop was intended to be culturally; he still resonates to this day. I think coming into the, I call the “Hump Years” of hip hop, when hip hop was beginning to be a movement you got Pete Rock and CL Smooth, you’ve got DJ Premier and the whole Gang Starr foundation, you’ve got the early Biggie, Ready to Die I loved, Ready to Die was actually the first album that I ever got.

I was raised on classic rock and folk protest music coming out of the Vietnam war era. But when I found a copy of the Notorious B.I.G Ready to Die album on my eighth grade Washington D.C trip it was like a switch went off. He was the first real drive into the culture. Coming into the modern era group wise, I don’t think you’re going to find anybody that dominates a wide spread like Wu-Tang Clan. They have a very diverse portfolio. J. Cole and Kendrick, I like more for their storytelling as opposed to just tracks.

Van Buren: You mentioned Biggie, but you didn’t mention Tupac. What’s up with that?

Ballou: Before Suge Knight polluted him I think Pac was good. He resonated with a power structure. Afeni Shakur and the focus on how she raised Pac was a force to be reckoned with. You look at his older tapes, before he went to jail out in New York and you look at his interviews you could see the knowledge, you could see the passion. Pac’s greatest influence is the fact that he had the word play. But it became more about the faction of rap which is one of the topics we begin to explore in the course. Is hip hop losing its cultural prevalence?

Van Buren: So are you able to take time off to get everything together? How long do you have to prepare your curriculum?

Ballou: I have a year total starting July 1st. I will be working within different schools sharing what I’m doing curriculum wise and the project based software that I’m writing. Hopefully, teachers will see the value in it and start adopting it in their own classrooms. My mentality is that I can’t solve the world’s educational woes by myself. The reality is that if teachers see the value there’s a lot that can happen.


Van Buren: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ballou: The biggest thing is, I think in the world we live in we need to provide opportunities for students to find themselves through autonomy, mastery and purpose. If we can teach kids to be resilient, reliant and to focus on the things that their passionate about; the world’s problems really don’t have much of a chance. If we provide them with opportunities to get creative, we’d be shocked to see what 16, 17 and 18 year old’s can do to help move us forward into a bright future.


Tagged with: