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Moving Toward Meaning

How hip-hop and movement create a critical pedagogy

May 12, 2020
Aysha Upchurch

Traditionally, learning has been envisioned as a process in which the body is still — students are sitting and reading or sitting and listening to the teacher. That's especially true for the kind of distance learning that most students are doing today, which often requires them to sit in front of a screen. Yet research has shown that movement is a key component in learning and can help alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression. Hip-hop — and an accompanying pedagogy of hip-hop — can offer a key pathway to a new kind of learning model that allows learners to move and think critically about the systems and structures that allow and inhibit movement. Pairing critical consciousness with movement — especially at a time when students are socially isolated — can open the door for rich and contemporary learning experiences.

"As many of us find ourselves teaching, learning, and even socializing seated in front of screens, it is even more necessary to consider how our bodies and minds are handling these unprecedented times. Social distancing, while necessary in this health pandemic, can have the impact of distancing ourselves from powerful knowledge of self and community that is unlocked through movement," says Aysha Upchurch, artist, performer, Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer, and director of HipHopEx, which just hosted the 4th Annual Can’t Stop Hip-Hop conference at Harvard — this time as on online experience. [Watch videos from the conference here].

For Upchurch, movement, dance, and an accompanying hip-hop pedagogy extend a meaningful, culturally relevant invitation for students of all ages — even trhough a screen.

Form a Dance Cypher

Cyphers have been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time. People form a circle and someone, or even small groups of people, enter the middle to show what they know, build off what someone else has done, or even challenge someone to see who’s best. In her work, Upchurch has found dance cyphers to be a powerful learning tool. Not only do they help build a sense of community, but they also allow students to express themselves in ways the typical curriculum might not consider. Moreover, she organizes all of her classes in a circle to encourage students to see and talk with each other, and not just “show out” for the professor. And, sometimes, dance cyphers close a class session so folks can connect and celebrate with their bodies. 

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"What’s happening right now is that we’re trying to school brains as if they’re not attached to bodies — bodies that carry rich and complex histories, as well as joy and trauma."

Move with Purpose

Movement-encouraging activities like “brain breaks” are valuable tools to focus attention, but is there a way they could go deeper?

Reflection and analysis should accompany movement. “Hip-hop is a critical lens for understanding the world. There’s a reason why the movements look the way they do,” Upchurch says. Asking students to consider the historical context or tracing the development of a move (or even a viral dance challenge) can engage students in the process of academic research and generating citations in a way that is meaningful and transformative.

Reach Across Disciplines

Design movement around academic content — can students demonstrate subtraction through movement? Can they tell a story? Do they know how their bodies work to produce that movement? “If my gym teacher and science teacher had worked together, I would definitely remember that content more,” says Upchurch. “We can experience Newton’s Laws and inertia. If students could walk around or stand or explore something with their bodies, it might deepen understanding and help everyone feel more connected to their bodies in a positive sense.”

Teachers as Designers

Teachers don’t have to be classically trained to use movement in their classrooms. What they do need to know is who their students are and how to structure an environment where all kids feel safe and supported — they may find that students have the movement expertise. “The obligation is to facilitate learning. Leave content at the door for a second. Teachers should leverage our power as folks who are designing the time, and create a space where students also lead the learning,” Upchurch says. She offers students opportunities to facilitate warm-ups/check-ins or other activities that they have developed/led in their classrooms. In this vein, Upchurch takes a cue from hip-hop and invites the spatial and pedagogical arrangement of the cypher — everyone can enter the center and share what they know, not just the instructor. “I’m trying to position myself as the DJ — read the room, feel the energy and play the right record at the right time. This means we may stay on a certain topic or thread for a while or we may need to may a quick fade into a whole new and needed conversation. So designing the learning environment in a way that allows for this kind of cypher-DJ relationship to manifest is very important.”

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Learners of All Ages Need to Move

Conversations about movement and learning shouldn’t just be happening at the preK–12 levels. Even graduate students have bodies that need to move. In her courses, Upchurch asks students to reflect on their movement journey. She often finds that there’s a point in time where students had a “break up” with movement and their bodies in some way. Just because a student may have the capacity to sit for six hours straight doesn’t mean they are more capable of learning or that’s how they learn best. Moreover, it does not allow students an option to integrate their bodies into their student experience.

The Physical Is Political

“Educators need to check how we might have imbibed unnecessarily problematic practices around movement. I had one student who put it like this: She said we can’t talk about movement in education because then we’d have to talk about bodies,” Upchurch says. “We can’t talk about bodies in education because then we’d have to talk about race and gender and class and white supremacy. And no one wants to really do that because it’s uncomfortable and may mean upending a lot of the traditional methods of schooling.” However, hip-hop pedagogy and hip-hop movement provide context for those difficult conversations and a way to start to dig into them in a classroom. “Because hip-hop appeals to so many people, we can center that shared appreciation and use it as a pivot into critical dialogue.”

Thinking about hip-hop and its movement as art, as political, is perhaps even more urgent in the current context. “Hip-hop’s genesis story references the oppressive systems intentionally targeting and marginalizing people of color and people of low income. Because we still live and experience that now, hip-hop still has that voice to speak to people who are in those circumstances and those who recognize that systems are flawed.”

However, as many of education’s formalities and compliance systems have fallen by the wayside with the closing of the physical building, a new opportunity emerges to maximize the potential of learning spaces. “Art is everywhere,” Upchurch says, noting that so-called informal learning experiences can be incredibly transformative. “There is an opportunity for those of us in spaces of power and access to think about how we can design learning to honor that and not just make those informal experiences an aside.”

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