Education Week Teacher: How Jay-Z Can Help Us Remix Education

By José Vilson

Recently, I bought “Watch The Throne,” Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album. Since Jay-Z’s debut album “Reasonable Doubt,” he’s undergone a metamorphosis: from a young spitfire to a mature statesman, reigning over the hip-hop community lyrically and industrially. Meanwhile, all 15 of his albums to date have gone platinum. His keen business sense, quiet charisma, and almost imperturbable demeanor have kept his solo career afloat for more than fifteen years.

Jay-Z “broke out” at 25, at about the same age many lifetime educators start our careers. Most of us will never accumulate a net worth of $450 million, but we can meet ambitious goals as teachers. And I think we can learn a great deal from this hip-hop figure:

Keep the Language Simple—and the Context Deep

Jay-Z’s debut album was lauded by fans for its texture and complexity. The album analyzed urban life in the 1980s and 90s and incorporated deft and engaging storytelling. It also kept him from reaching a broader base of listeners. So Jay-Z shifted things for his next album—he simplified the language but kept the context deep.

What’s the take-away for us as educators? We want all students to fulfill high academic expectations, but we must balance this with the need to meet our students at their level. I often hear educators refer to this as an “either/or” situation—but we can provide the “and.” We can speak in language our students will understand without sacrificing the meaning, context, and depth of what we teach.

It’s worth noting that Jay-Z was accused of ‘selling out’ when he simplified the language in which he articulated his experiences. However, ultimately, he reached many more listeners, and his real fans respected his growth. As teachers, we may experience some pushback from peers who are unwilling to meet their students halfway, but if we engage students in meaningful learning, helping them to master critical concepts, we will have done our jobs well.

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