10 Tips for Teaching Hip-Hop & Spoken Word Poetry

As educators we are constantly on the prowl to find new and creative pedagogical strategies to motivate our students to critically engage with literature.

Brian Mooney is one of the many educators who utilizes hip-hop and spoken word poetry as a teaching tool. Inside of the classroom, Brian incorporates music and poetry as a means to bridge a connection between American literature and their personal lives.

Brian teaches at High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey. He recently incorporated music from hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, “To Pimp A Butterfly” in correlation to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Kendrick Lamar discovered Brian’s teaching strategies through an online blog post and was inspired to visit the class. Brian’s enthusiasm for education and the arts literally led to “the best day of  school ever” at High Tech High School, as Kendrick Lamar spent time with students,  listening to poems and freestyling. He ended the day by performing his hit song, “Alright” for the entire school.

After talking to Brian, we were interested in learning more about his pedagogical tactics in the classroom, and wondered how one would introduce a genre like hip-hop and poetry to students. We’re now excited to share with you Brian’s “10 Tips for Teaching Hip-Hop and Spoken Word in the Classroom.”

brian mooney

10 Tips for Teaching Hip-Hop & Spoken Word Poetry

by Brian Mooney

  1. Be yourself.

If hip-hop isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. Better to “keep it real” and be yourself. In other words, keep it authentic. Find connections to your students that are meaningful to you – but don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. If you love classic poetry, boom – spoken word is calling your name. Open your mind to new voices, cultures, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. Your students need you to!

  1. Create open mic time.

My students love reading their poetry during “open mic” time – this is a low-stakes, non-judgmental period of 10-15 minutes at the beginning of every club or class meeting when students can share anything they’ve written – poems, verses, raps, bars, songs, or short stories. No feedback, just snaps! It’s important to develop a culture of listening and affirmation before getting to this next tip…

  1. Workshop the writing.

Start an event! But remember there is no successful poetry slam or hip-hop show without good stories. Make sure you spend LOTS of time “workshopping” the poems and songs. Have student-poets and MCs bring in enough copies for everyone and get to work! Emphasize constructive, mature, respectful, critical, specific feedback! This should probably be the number one suggestion! Look at the work of Peter Elbow for incredible writing workshop suggestions.

  1. Invite guest poets.

We all know schools have tons of $$$ allocated for MCs and spoken word artists to come visit (yea right!) – but you’d be surprised how much $300 – $500 can get you – especially if you live near a major city. Do a few bake sales and reach out to your local poets and MCs. Often times, they are looking for work – and having them visit for a workshop and feature performance will do wonders for your students and the school community. I especially recommend Jon Sands!

  1. Integrate all of hip-hop’s elements, including its history.

Most people think of hip-hop as simply rap music. But the MC is just one element of the culture. There’s also DJ’ing, Breakdancing, Graffiti Art, and most importantly “Knowledge of Self.” If you create a hip-hop or spoken word event, find ways to get all kinds of students involved in the creation process. Have some kids design artwork and flyers – or create a graffiti piece. Others can breakdance in the show. Make one kid the DJ. There’s room for everyone!

It’s also important to understand that hip-hop has a complicated social and political history. Understanding hip-hop as a culture of resistance, born in Jamaica and then transplanted to the South Bronx is essential for doing this work. Teach your students about the socioeconomic conditions that gave birth to hip-hop in the 1970s, including “urban renewal,” the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and the resulting “white flight” during a time when the “Bronx was burning” and the world was watching. Jeff Chang’s groundbreaking book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2005), will tell you everything you need to know about the history of the hip-hop generation.

  1. Forget the slam (or don’t).

If you’re trying to come up with a good structure for your event, forget the slam format! The poetry slam, with its judges and scores, can discourage teenagers who might otherwise rock the mic. Try using a “showcase” format without the judgment. On the other hand, competition can sometimes inspire kids to really write their hearts out. But if your shows get a good turnout and the kids are into it, forget the points – or at least deemphasize them so everyone knows “the points are not the point / the point is the poetry.”

  1. YouTube is your friend.

There is an enormous archive of performances on YouTube. Use this resource to expose students to many voices and styles – and also to study performance skills. Usually after our “open mic” session, we have a “YouTube featured poet of the week.” Let students pick. They usually know who’s hot. And for hours upon hours of dopeness, check out this playlist of spoken word poetry that I compiled (disclaimer: some might not be classroom appropriate).

  1. Ask your students what’s up!

If you want to know which poets or rappers are relevant, ask your students! They put me on to new shit all the time. Get out of the familiar “teacher knows all” comfort zone and let the kids tell YOU what’s relevant. Once they know you’ll listen, they won’t shut up. At all times I have a stack of post-it notes on my desk with names of poets, MCs and bands for me to check out thanks to my students. This makes me feel cool and young and not pushing 30.

  1. Use existing curriculum.

Until you feel comfortable enough to write your own, use what’s out there! Learn Then Burn is an awesome spoken word anthology that comes with a teacher guide / workbook companion. Also check out Toss the Earth: Poems That Move Us – edited by Geoff Kagan Trenchard, Adam Falkner, and Mahogany L. Browne. It has great poems and even better writing prompts. Lastly, for you hip-hop educators, check out Hip-Hop Poetry And The Classics and the newly released Hip-Hop Language Arts – both amazing curriculums written by Michael Cirelli & Alan Sitomer.

  1. Get connected.

There are lots of educators doing this work all over the world. Check out the #HipHopEd Twitter chat on Tuesday nights from 9:00 – 10:00 PM. We discuss the intersections of hip-hop, culture, and education while sharing ideas, lesson plans, and a whole lot of resources. Subscribe to Button Poetry on YouTube. They feature incredible poets that you should know about. Lastly, find out if there’s a youth organization in your area that promotes literacy among urban youth. Often times these organizations have incredible resources and programs that can support your efforts with hip-hop and spoken word education. I rely on Urban Word NYC, which also has a location in Los Angeles.


Poet’s Bio: Brian Mooney is an educator, scholar, and poet from New Jersey. He explores the intersections of hip-hop, spoken word, literacy, and urban education. Brian holds a bachelor’s degree from New York University and a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, where he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in English Education.

His research examines the identities of young writers who participate in high school poetry slams and considers the effects of hip-hop culture on teaching and learning. He has conducted workshops for teachers and schools across the country.

Brian is the founder and curator of Word Up, a high school poetry slam that champions the voices of youth poets and MCs in Hudson County. The event has featured guest poets and teaching artists from across the country, including Kendrick Lamar, Andrea Gibson, Sarah Kay, Jon Sands, Angel Nafis, Shira Erlichman, Ken Arkind, and Rudy Francisco. Brian’s work has been featured by national news outlets including The New York Times, NBC, NPR, Rolling Stone, MTV, SiriusXM and others.

When he isn’t grading papers, Brian enjoys making electronic music, writing poems, and spending time with his wife and their cat, Tigger, who is the coolest.


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