Future of Learning

TEACHER VOICE: How hip-hop erased these young students’ unfair, bad rap

Making it cool to be kind

Luke O’Brien with his students at Camelot Kaps in Philadelphia.

Luke O’Brien with his students at Camelot KAPS in Philadelphia.

“They try to say I’m a bad kid. But I know that’s not the case now. …”

Those are the words in the chorus of a rap music video that my students and I wrote together.

As someone who found his voice and his refuge in music at a very young age, I know what a great outlet it was to help me get through my trials and tribulations — and also to voice my triumphs.

As a music teacher for elementary school students, I have the privilege of providing that same platform to the kids who are referred to us for emotional support.

These are students who because of their behaviors are not able to succeed in mainstream classrooms. My school, Camelot Education’s Camelot KAPS, is a K-7 transitional program that provides a therapeutic setting for these students. Our kids are at times misunderstood. Often, they just need positive role models in their lives, and we provide that. But some also need creative outlets. That’s where my classroom comes in.

I have been writing and recording rap music with my students for the past three years.

This year, rather than borrowing from popular hip-hop tunes, students are writing and recording their own 16-line rap videos — with the hashtag #motivationforcreation.

The idea is to highlight one student at a time and the talent that they have and that I’ve come across while teaching them. I call the series “16” because in hip-hop music, when a rapper does a verse, the typical length is 16 lines or bars.

I work with students one-on-one to craft their verses. Then they make a beat together and record the verses live on video. We sync the audio and video to produce the final product.

As an introduction to the series, my students and I produced “Way Above Average.”

“I guess the beat is my home / I’m gonna take a seat on the throne

If you don’t keep it one hundred / Could you please leave me alone?”

There are a lot of advantages for these students when they create music. They get positive attention from their peers. The staff get to know the students’ lyrics, and in passing they’ll give them a little high five or maybe recite a couple of lines from their verse. Second, these kids form a connection that is very important to them. It makes them feel good. It’s something they can focus on. And we can use the class as a motivator to encourage good behaviors (and discourage bad ones).

Kids are naturally creative, and they don’t have as many reservations as adults. That makes them way more fun to create with. That’s why I love my classroom. It’s a free space where they can come in and say the weirdest things and we’ll turn them into a song. I like to keep it weird — and kids are good at that. What’s really significant about the messages is that I tweak them to be about respect and being kind, still making them cool so the kids aren’t saying “all this is corny” but instead making it cool to be kind, which is my mission.

I feel very fortunate to have found my way into this school. Our administration has consciously hired good human beings, and you can feel when you walk around the hallways that our purpose — our sole mission — is to help these kids succeed.

The sense of relief and comfort that I see them find in writing and recording music is also what I found in music. Music changed my life, and I fully believe that when we introduce music and art to these kids, we are helping to change their lives for the better.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Luke O’Brien teaches at Camelot Education’s Camelot KAPS in Philadelphia. He also performs as hip-hop artist Lukey the Bird.

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Luke O'Brien

Luke O’Brien teaches at Camelot Education’s Camelot KAPS in Philadelphia. He also performs as hip-hop artist Lukey the Bird. See Archive

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