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Teaching language through hip-hop
Tony Pozdol didn’t exactly launch his college career as standout scholar.
After graduating from Lane Tech College Prep, he enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University. (Then he flunked out and took two years off.) Then he earned his associates degree from Wilbur Wright College. (Then he took four more years off.) Then he returned to Northeastern in 2013 ... and that’s when Pozdol found inspiration in the Daniel L. Goodwin College of Education.
Now one year since earning his Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education-English, Pozdol is teaching ninth-grade English with cutting-edge curriculum that he developed as a Northeastern student. In March, his work with Assistant Professor of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies Alison Dover was published in English Journal.
“Teaching Good Kids in a m.A.A.d World: Using Hip-Hop to Reflect, Reframe, and Respond to Complex Realities” is the culmination of Pozdol’s effort to teach students that literary characters are just as complex as the people they meet in their daily lives. His muse is Kendrick Lamar, one of the hottest hip-hop artists in today’s music industry.
For Pozdol, who has written and performed hip-hop music since high school, the connection between lyrics and lessons is clear.
“Hip-hop is language arts, and Kendrick Lamar is one of the premier language artists right now,” he said. “It’s quality stuff but from a voice students might enjoy more than Shakespeare. It’s not that Shakespeare isn’t important, but it’s nice to be able to mix in current artists as well.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Pozdol said his students at ASPIRA Business and Finance High School in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago embraced the Kendrick Lamar teaching unit. More importantly, they also learned from it.
“When I originally taught this as a student-teacher, it was because students were making flat judgments of characters,” said Pozdol, who grew up in Chicago’s Avondale and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. “People are more complex than that. Kendrick Lamar talks about doing things that he doesn’t believe in because of his circumstances, and that allowed me to ask students nuanced questions about characters and people.”
Pozdol still talks regularly with Dover, whom he considers a mentor, and she couldn’t be more impressed and inspired by his work.
“As a profession, teaching is increasingly defined by external mandates and high-stakes assessments, both of which can stifle intellectual freedom and curiosity among students and teachers alike,” she said. “Tony's work is an example of how a teacher can creatively resist those pressures by creating learning environments that engage and encourage students.”
Pozdol’s academic struggles were never due to lack of intelligence—just a lack of effort and interest from a student who was more interested in the social opportunities in life than the academic ones. Now 32, Pozdol is working on his first solo hip-hop album with hopes of finishing by the summer.
“I enjoy connecting with the youth in our city,” Pozdol said. “They’re an important group to reach because there is so much going on here. Teaching is my way in to making those connections and setting them up with English skills that are pretty important in today’s world. Teaching matters.”
Pozdol credits not just Dover with pushing him at Northeastern, but also professors such as Isaura Pulido and Ann Aviles de Bradley.
“I had a great experience at Northeastern,” he said. “It was life-changing.”
Dover looks forward to seeing where that life takes him.
“Tony is one of those teachers who is fun to watch,” she said. “His interactions with students reveal his curiosity about and deep respect for their perspectives. Watching him design and teach his Kendrick Lamar unit was an example of the beautiful synchronicity that happens when a teacher really knows his students, cares passionately about helping them grapple with rigorous ideas, and is able to support students in taking ownership over their own learning process.”