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The Importance of Using Youth Culture as an Instructional Tool


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Jon Yasin, Bergen Community College


Over the past two generations, educators of the “Baby Boomer” generation have witnessed dramatic changes in American education and the educational process. We have witnessed the desegregation of public schools, colleges, and universities and in recent years, the re-segregation of these institutions in certain cities and states. We have also witnessed the increasing influence of popular youth cultures, such as Hip Hop, on politics, fashion, advertising, business, and other mores of society, to the extent that society’s mainstream institutions now readily appropriate features of Hip Hop culture for their own purposes in a variety of their standard institutional practices. Various Hip Hop artists, including Emcee will-i-am of the Black Eyed Peas, recorded rhymes [raps] supporting the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama for forty-fourth President of the United States. Howard Dean, former Chairman of the Democratic National Party, appropriated another element of Hip Hop — that of taggin’, or graffiti art -during his own presidential campaign in 2004, when he commissioned the tagger, Keo, to create the backdrop for a speech in New York City’s Bryant Park. Furthermore, in the November 2008 issue of Vibe, a popular Hip Hop magazine, then-Senator Obama wrote an open letter to the Hip Hop community encouraging them to vote; most recently, many Hip Hop artists were commissioned to perform at President Obama’s inauguration balls.

In addition to these elements appearing in mainstream society, other practices such as the phonetic spellings found in Hip Hop lyrics [rap lyrics], email messages, and text messages, are used regularly in writing for various institutions. One of my research associates on Hip Hop culture, Yaya Fanusie, a young African American economist employed by the government, wrote the following in an email message on Thursday, December 11, 2008: “i can imagine the ‘Allah made me funny’ jokes about this now.” Notice the small letter “i” denoting the personal pronoun “I.” Yaya received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a Masters of Public Policy degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. In addition, for about fifteen years now, Economist Yaya has been a Hip Hop emcee [rapper]; that is, he writes and recites Hip Hop lyrics. Thus, Economist Yaya also is Emcee Yaya, known as Emcee 2Ys to the Hip Hop community. Although he sometimes fuses these two distinct identities together, as shown in his email message, Yaya also “code switches” — using the appropriate [language] code for his environment — following rules of capitalization and spelling in formal English in certain situations and institutions, and using phonetic spelling and lack of capitalization common in certain popular youth cultures in others.

However, because of the pervasiveness of Hip Hop and other popular youth cultures in mainstream society, many students now present themselves to us in the academy writing with language features of their youth cultures. It is imperative that students in writing classes “sort out” the writing features of their youth cultures and those of formal English and academic writing, so that they can readily code switch, using the appropriate register of English in various situations. To that end, the cultures the students bring into the classroom can be readily used as instructional tools to assist students in developing skills in academic writing specifically and for negotiating the academy in general.

What is Youth Culture?

Youth culture is a “common culture”: a culture available to anyone for participation. According to Paul Willis, “[m]ost young people’s lives are not involved with the arts and yet are actually full of expressions, signs and symbols through which individuals and groups seek creatively to establish their presence, identity and meaning. Young people are all the time expressing or attempting to express something about their actual or potential cultural significance. This is the realm of living common culture” (1).

Certain of these youth cultures are international; elements of Hip Hop can be found in most countries of the world. This can be witnessed in classrooms with international students. Furthermore, in the course of our research, we have traveled to more than eighty countries, including various countries with very conservative governments, and have seen the graffiti art of their Hip Hop communities: tags, which are signatures or monikers of taggers or “writers”; throw-ups, which include lettering in bubble style; and pieces, which are whole scenes. Also, we have heard Hip Hop rhymes [rap music] in a plethora of languages around the globe. Moreover, we have witnessed Hip Hop deejays blending traditional music of their countries with funk, rhythm and blues, and other forms of music.

Alternative rules of capitalization, punctuation, and phonetic spelling, common to Hip Hop culture, email geek culture, text message geek culture, appear to have their origins in other youth cultures, particularly Hip Hop, which is a generation older. For example, on December 29, 2008, we received an email message from Imad, a young Moroccan man who was awarded the Bachelors of Arts degree in English Literature by the University of Fes. Being fluent in formal English, Imad is also a technology geek. He wrote, “happy new year [….] my parents are asking about u and they are passing their salam to u”, excerpts of a message that follows the rules of capitalization and phonetic spelling of emailer geeks as well as text messenger geeks. Email and text message cultures quickly became international common cultures because the participants in each culture quickly developed its Discourse. According to James Gee, “A Discourse is a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and ‘artifacts’, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network’, or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful ‘role” (131).

Students who participate in these cultures bring these Discourses into our classrooms.

Youth Cultures in Our Classrooms

It is not uncommon to see students sign attendance sheets using scripts they might employ when tagging orcreating throw-ups. Several years ago, an African American male student who tags wrote me a note in a recognizable traditional standard script, however, my name in the salutation and his closing signature were written in same script in which his tag or graffiti moniker could be seen on various walls around his hometown. Other students use the language of Hip Hop culture. “I was pampered with servants and drivers for 24/7,” explained a female student from India in an essay. “24/7” is a clipped “word” coined by a Hip Hop emcee during the beginning of the 1990s, meaning “continuously” or “all of the time.” In addition, students discuss elements of Hip Hop culture in their writing assignments. A developmental writing student, a b-boy [beat boy] or Hip Hop dancer who was born in Peru, wrote that “breakdancing is a very physical sport . . . in the battle scene it gives adrenaline rush. [A battle in Hip Hop culture is a competition between performers.] I would love for my kid to have the same feeling and passion in breakdancing.” Students also cite Hip Hop professional artists as primary sources. For a research assignment, a student from Korea quoted from a book written by Rev. Run and his wife Justine Simmons; Rev. Run is Run of the famous Hip Hop emcee duo, Run DMC. A final example of students bringing youth culture into classrooms comes from a student from Latin America, who participates in email culture and text message culture. Recently, he emailed me the following: “im wondering bout ma final grade jaja im sorry about dat.”

Because students bring features of their youth cultures into the academy, their cultural practices can be excellent teaching tools. For example, in developmental and expository writing courses, it is important that students realize that there are different registers of language or different codes; formal English, in which they are required to be proficient for success in institutions of higher learning, and more informal language, which includes the Discourses of their youth cultures. Because their Discourses center around individual interests, hobbies, and community relationships, students must understand that in academic writing classes, our objective as teachers is not to force them to abandon the Discourses of their youth cultures and communities, but to add another Discourse, that of the academic and professional worlds. Therefore, in the classroom, it is important to address the whole student and their various identities: student, employee, citizen in the civic and social world, b-boy or b-girl in the Hip Hop world, text messenger, and so forth.

Suggestions for Addressing the Whole Student

Because students, like ourselves, are constantly being bombarded with “noise” that we often filter out, many of our students may need to be addressed individually as well as collectively. Many are accustomed to shutting out that which does not affect them directly; unless one addresses these students by name, they do not always mentally attend or follow the class discussion. As a way of combating this situation in my own classes, my assistants and I will explain a concept –such as the thesis statement and its importance in writing an essay — then call each student by name and ask if he or she understands and if they have any questions. This can be very time-consuming, but it generates interesting questions that often clarify a concept or lesson when answered.

One also can bring various Discourses directly into the classroom and discuss their differences. For example, early on in our writing classes, the writing process is explained to the students. If there are Hip Hop emcees in the class, we collaborate by having them teach this lesson because steps in the process are standard for all genres of writing. They are asked to prepare a lesson explaining how they write a rhyme [rap]. This usually captures the undivided attention of the students, many of whom participate in Hip Hop actively, by performing one of the elements, or passively by buying Hip Hop music, wearing Hip Hop gear, attending concerts and battles, or reading Hip Hop magazines. After the student has explained the writing process he or she uses to write rhymes, we usually explain the process/steps that the student explained, but in formal English, using academic terms. We conclude that discussion by showing students the differences in the final written products, a Hip Hop rhyme written in bars and an academic essay written in complete sentences and paragraphs, using certain types of punctuation.

Because students who are developing their writing skills also are developing their procedural knowledge, it is important for them to practice writing frequently. It is good to discuss each writing assignment with each student, especially pointing out what he or she did well, in addition to instances where they employ language from their youth cultures and alternative ways of communicating those concepts in academic English.

Youth cultures, specifically Hip Hop, also can be utilized to teach critical thinking skills, for example contrasting explicit Hip Hop lyrics of certain commercial rappers with the positive, socially conscious lyrics of other emcees. Such lyrics also can be used to teach figurative language in literature. Emceeing/rapping as an instructional technique have been utilized in social science courses, while b-boying and b-girling are used to teach certain physical science concepts. For additional suggestions, see Yasin’s article, “Hip Hop: A Source of Empowerment for African American Male College Students” in Tillman’s Sage Handbook of African American Education.


Utilizing the common cultures of contemporary students demonstrates to the students that “what they are about” is respected by their instructors. This motivates the students to be receptive to many other types of information that the instructor might wish to share with them for their success, even on issues not necessarily related to their course work, and to be cooperative regarding classroom decorum. Furthermore, students in these courses often try harder, are more attentive to their studies, and are more productive because they respect and “like” the instructor. Using youth cultures, particularly Hip Hop, helps students learn necessary information and make the behavioral changes required in their writing. Educators must be aware of these youth cultures because they have captured the imagination of adolescents and young adults globally, and these cultures are not going away until youths no longer participate in them. Pe@ce!


Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 2nd ed. London: The Falmer Press, 1996.

Willis, Paul. Common Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1990.

Yasin, Jon A. “Hip Hop: Source of Empowerment for African American Male College Students.” The Sage Handbook of African American Education. Ed. Linda Tillman.Los Angeles: Sage Publications. 2009.