When NAfME member Robert Vagi asked his students to write hip-hop songs, he discovered lots of benefits. In addition to engaging students who struggle in other academic areas, writing hip-hop songs increased his students’ self-confidence and the appreciation of music at his school. Here are more of Vagi’s tips:
Creating a Safe Environment
Risk taking is a crucial element in writing songs. “I have a zero negativity policy and have very strict rules about criticism,” Vagi says. “My personal style in managing the process is to build personal relationships with each of the students and establish myself as a leader that students know they can trust and who will always look out for their best interest.”
Vagi also helps students learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable and shows his own vulnerability by sharing his stories, thoughts, and opinions with his students.
“I also work to create a sense of community and trust among my students,” he says.
Publicizing Student Work
Vagi creates CDs of student work or posts it on the Web. His students have also received some media coverage. This “lends credibility not only to the students’ work, thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but to the music program as well,” he says.
Posting student work on the Web and media coverage “also give the entire community, school, and district something to be proud of,” he says. “I work hard to make sure that whatever I do not only benefits kids but also builds a sense of pride in our community and serves as an advocacy tool for the arts.”
Listen to some of Vagi’s students’ music at MurphyHipHop’s Channel on YouTube.
Students with Special Needs
About half of Vagi’s students have been involved in special education. “I work with these students a little bit extra just to be sure that their lyrics work, but overall they’re just as thoughtful and have just as much to say, if not more, than many other students.”
Writing hip-hop songs give these students a place to showcase their talents—an opportunity, he says, they may not have in many of their other classes.
Tommy, a student with autism, wrote a song, “War Stinks.” Vagi points out that Tommy’s autism “allows him to see things in ways that others might not. His line ‘The only thing civil was the way they dressed’ was something that he cleverly came up with because he saw the conflict between the literal meaning of the word ‘civil’ and its use when describing a war.”
Students Reflect on the Experience
One student who moved through group homes after his mother walked out said, “I’m a more open person now. I used to not talk about my past.”
Another student cautioned rappers about cursing and glorifying violence: “When you say bad things, it might influence people in a bad way, but if you say something positive, it might connect with them.”
A student hoped his song “would give people who are being told that they can’t do anything a boost and help them find out that they can do something with their lives.”
Hear more from these young songwriters in this ABC News clip.
Robert Vagi is a music teacher at Ira A. Murphy Elementary School in Peoria, Arizona. He discusses how he set up a hip-hop class or unit of study in his article, “From Haydn to Hip-Hop,” in the January 2010 issue of Teaching Music.
—Linda C. Brown, June 9, 2010, © National Association for Music Education