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Rappin' About Literacy Activism | The Nation

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Rappin' About Literacy Activism

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Tomas Palermo

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July 13, 2007

"What the students say they want is a teacher who cares." --Jamal A. Cooks, Ph.D.

Thirty-five-year-old Dr. Jamal Cooks teaches teachers how to teach. He helps future high school educators learn how to connect with and educate youth. As a professor at San Francisco State University's Department of Secondary Education, he is renown for his candid opinions on education and inspired tips for aspiring teachers.

Perhaps more remarkable is the quest he began shortly after graduating from high school to make a difference in the world of public education. To really make an impact, he knew he'd have to both be in the classroom as an educator and sit in the boardrooms with those in positions of influence.

After attending Cal Berkeley and University of Michigan, he taught middle school and earned a Ph.D., and is currently a nearly-tenured professor at SFSU instructing the next generation of teachers. Additionally, he has that most important seat--on the editorial board of major textbook company Houghton Mifflin. Cooks now helps decide what is and is not cool to put in a student's textbook. Who'd ever think a hip-hop kid from East Oakland could do that? Cooks did.

Teachers frequently encounter him on panels with titles like "The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature In High School." But the dude is also hella down to earth. He was in some pretty successful "true-school" era hip-hop recording groups and currently coaches high school track at Oakland's Skyline High School, a frequent California State Track Meet qualifier. Meet the man who made it his passion to change the public education game, one class at a time.

WireTap: What does it mean to you to be a literacy advocate?

Dr. Jamal Cooks:

First of all, I like that title--"literacy advocate"--I don't think I've been called that before! For one, people don't talk about literacy in broad terms; they talk about the basics: reading, writing and speech. They don't talk about literacy in terms of what it means to students, the value it has to students, and how we as adults and teachers can use it to teach kids. As a literacy advocate, I'm promoting student voice, respect for students and where they come from, and making a plea to educators, "Hey, let's look at what students can do."

Almost every article on education you read is talking about the achievement gap, the reasons why students of color can't achieve. Well, let's look at what they do have. We're always looking at what they don't have.

I believe that all students are literacy-rich and they come to the classroom with a variety of different skills, and [educators and adults] need to be able to identify them. We need to give students the opportunity to express themselves in their home dialect. Then if we want to transition them to Standard American English, fine. But whatever the choice is, we have to start with the student.

What do middle and high school students tell you that they want to learn and be taught?

Cooks:

Elementary, middle and high school kids want something that's engaging. They want something to pull them into the lesson. Many students want to move around, they want to do something. They don't just want to come and fill out a worksheet or answer some questions. I asked a student one time, "What else would you be doing if you weren't here?" He said, "I wouldn't be doing this crap! I'd be watching movies, listening to music, trying to understand what's going on and how it relates to me." Well, that's what we want them to do with the curriculum in the classroom!

What the students say they want is a teacher who cares--as simple as that sounds. They want a teacher who respects them, who the students can get to know. Students want to know that they can come in every day and know that they're in a safe environment, they're going to learn something, and that they have something to come back to the next day.

How do you transition a kid from text messaging their friends during a class period to writing a two-page expository essay?

Cooks:

I believe if you have a student who has a strength--any strength--I believe you give them the opportunity to use that strength to express themselves. So if it's text messaging, fine--send me a text message. If that's what it's going to take to engage the student to answer questions, then let's talk on text messages in the classroom.

Maybe the next time, instead of texting me, I'll ask the student to write down what they want to say on paper, but I'd allow them to use text slang like "bff" and "lol." Then I say to the student, "Write it that way for your first draft," because now the student is teaching me what bff (best friends forever) or ty (thank you) means.

So first, I've allowed the students to express themselves in the way they want to; second, I've been taught by the student what they want to say; then lastly, the teacher can help the student move their message to an expository text.

That may seem unconventional, but most students have cell phones, as a teacher I would [try to devise a way] that every student can text one sentence to my phone or computer. Then, as a class we can take the sentences students send and make them a paragraph, then make a story and so forth. We have technology, so we should use it.

How can educators and others address poor attendance records in urban schools and create an environment where students want to come to class?

Cooks:

Educators don't always like this response, but students are consumers. We have to make sure that they're buying what we're selling. If we're selling them zero we're gonna get zero. If they feel like they're not getting anything from class, they won't come. I mean, as an adult there are meetings I hate going to. Sometimes, I don't go; sometimes, I make an excuse, so I can leave; sometimes, I leave in the middle of it.

We have to make school count, not just because it's the law, but we need to make sure students are encouraged and excited about education. They know if they come to Mr. Cooks' class they're going to walk out with something. Every single day they're going to learn something about, I don't know--soda, sneakers, physics or computers--something practical that has to do with their lives.

I ask my track athletes [at Skyline High School] all the time, "What did you learn today?" They typically say, "Nothing." I tell them that if they didn't learn anything, then they have to share some of that blame, because they should be able to demand that they get something out of school. I don't think enough adults are encouraging students to take control of their lives and demand that they be taught.

Which aspect of high school literacy is the most critically in need of development?

Cooks:

Definitely writing. 100 percent writing. I spent somewhat of a career looking at writing and teaching writing engagement. I had my own personal struggles with writing growing up. I had to learn that there are different contexts--different ways that you write--for different settings. I work with students and teachers on how to identify those settings and mesh what the kids bring from their world with what teachers want them to do in the classroom.

These days writing is even more important because there's more value being placed on writing on the standardized tests. Writing is also on the SAT now. At least with a reading or math test there's a [yes or no] answer. Writing is subjective. Students from urban areas or even poor rural areas don't get a fair share when it comes to their writing on these [standardized tests].

The state of California decided this year that students with learning disabilities and IEPs (individual education plans for students with emotional or learning difficulties) or special needs won't be given extra time or assistance to finish the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). What's your view on the CAHSEE and other standardized tests?

Cooks:

I'll use a sports analogy: When a season starts, hypothetically everyone starts practice on the same day, everyone has the same access to training facilities, weight rooms, playing equipment, and the same access to the knowledge base of plays and training. So, hypothetically when schools compete, the best team or individual should win, because everything being equal, you have an idea of who was best able to use their resources and be successful.

However, in the real world we know that teams and individuals train year-round, that some teams lack facilities and equipment; some have 20 coaches and others have one. So, at the end of the day, is everything equal? And if it's not equal, did the best team or person really win?

So when we're talking about schools and testing, if everyone doesn't have computers, if every school doesn't have high quality teachers, if every student doesn't have a pen and paper, if every school doesn't have 20 students per class, if they all don't have the optimum learning environment, then what are we really rewarding with these test scores?

When you look at standardized test scores, they reveal more about [a student's] socioeconomic status, what resources they had and their home environment, rather than knowledge of curriculum and [educational] standards. Also, the state standards being taught in the classrooms are not aligned with the standardized tests. If none of that is in line, then again, what do the scores mean?

What are the different types of literacy?

Cooks:

Literacy is any verbal or nonverbal form of effective communication for a particular discourse community. That can be through music, poetry, spoken word, reading, writing, communication, text messaging, emailing--all those are effective forms of communication for specific communities. There's always a value to different types of literacy, based on the context.

For instance, I'm a professor, but I know that if I sat here [in our interview] and just started dropping theories, that wouldn't be effective communication for [WireTap's] readership. If I go to my faculty meeting at SF State, I can't go in and communicate the same way I would with people I communicate with at the hip-hop concert that night. It's about context and effective verbal and nonverbal communication.

How do you apply your knowledge of literacy types to the context of coaching track and field?

Cooks:

As a track coach, very similar to a teacher, I have content that I have to teach to the group. I have to figure out what the athletes already know or don't know, and what they have a propensity to absorb. I look at what their strengths are, and what makes the athlete tick--what makes them "get it."

I identify that as soon as possible, then move through the process of teaching skills, modeling skills, allowing the athlete the opportunity to practice the skills themselves with my help, and finally the athlete is able to do those skills on his own. Just like tests and quizzes in the classroom, track meets are used to assess and evaluate progress.

So, if you're teaching writing, the instructor might decide to spend more time on topic sentences in order to help the entire essay or paper. Likewise, if I'm coaching a 400-meter runner who is fading with 100 meters left to go in a race, then maybe I need to do more training to address the aerobic aspect of the event.

I draw parallels between the nuts and bolts of teaching and the basics of teaching track. And teachers need to learn from other folks who work with kids--coaches, counselors, after-school programs, etc.--people who have other expertise working with students and apply that to what they do. And coaches need to look at what teachers are doing in the classroom in order to connect that to whatever sport that is.

What were some of your learning experiences in the hip-hop game?

Cooks:

I grew up being in groups and crews and all that. We started out poppin' and lockin' and breakin' (break dancing). That grew into a crew where we were dancing and DJ-ing. In 1987-88 we started a rap group called Fresh Inc. There were a lot of dancers and DJ groups all coming up at the same time, but we were the youngest of the bunch--in junior high school. It was fun, empowering, vibrant, a natural high--all that.

In 1989 we entered a KMEL radio contest ("Win $10, 0000 for Your School"), and we won. That was in March or April. Over spring break my partner [in the rap group] left to tour with Chubb Rock and Kid N Play--a bunch of them. He was my best friend, someone I had been performing with for five years. At that point I was a 3.8 student, doing a lot of sports, and had just been accepted into Cal Berkeley. So our lives we're really just going two separate ways.

He came back after I started Cal in August, and asked me "Are you still dancing?" I said, "Yeah, I have a new partner ..." But the three of us went to Cal State Hayward and with no practice, just rehearsed, and it was like magic--like he never left.

The new group--our trio--was named Shot O' Soul and played at clubs like Slims (in San Francisco), DNA Lounge, Lollapalooza, Gathering of the Tribes ... we opened up for Stereo MCs, Gang Starr, Latifah, Digital Underground, Ice Cube. After about a year and half, the new member, Keith, left the group, we had hired and fired three sets of dancers, and I was at Cal the whole time. I said to myself, "If we're not signed by the time I leave Cal, then I'm done with this." In March we went to an open call for a label and got offered a contract on the spot. We put out a single, called "Peace Love and Soul," that got played on local radio and all that.

Then I started teaching and that became my life--at school at 7 a.m., credential classes after school till 8 p.m.--then I'd go to the studio every night. The short of it is--I left the group after a disagreement--things happen, and I got let out of the contract.

(Photo of Cooks with Sugar Hill Gang below right.)

How can we use hip-hop in the classroom?

Cooks:

I think [using hip-hop in the classroom] is something educators and adults are nervous about because they don't know it. They feel it challenges their expertise and knowledge base. But as I mentioned earlier, we need to start learning from kids. I mean, how bad is it to listen to a two-minute song?

I want to know what my students are hearing. I also want them to know reality from myth, particularly the way women are perceived in rap, and how women react to that--and the guys, too. I like to have those kind of conversations with the kids, both formally and informally. You can use hip-hop song lyrics like any other text. All texts have a context, all texts have value and importance.

What is the significance of your position at the textbook company, and how have you been able to make a difference?

Cooks:

I work for Houghton Mifflin as an author on the editorial board. The significance is that I am able to influence and impact what millions of kids are going to learn, and how they're going learn it. That's pretty cool.

I'm also the first African-American male, and probably one of the few African-Americans that have been on the author board. My perspective [on the board] is to look for culturally relevant pedagogy, engaging students and teaching writing to students.

I gave some suggestions for how to structure the writing program for K-6 series, and pretty much everything I suggested was incorporated. That's kinda scary, because if that part sucks, then they know whom to blame! But if it works instructionally like I think it will, then I can take some of that glow as well.

How important is it? We can fight the system three ways: We can be inside, on the outside or a part of both. Many times when you're on the outside looking in, people [inside] don't have to hear you. I've chosen to advocate from within for urban and inner-city youth. When I'm sitting at the table--whether it's at the textbook company, in a classroom, with teacher development workshops--I'm always, always thinking about my kids, and what is best for them.

Tomas Palermo is the managing editor of Wiretap.

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