Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summer Lessons from Belize and Marc Lamont Hill

So I got to travel a bunch this summer, more than any other time in my adult life. The usual grind of championship swim meets was book ended by a missionary trip to Belize and a much-needed vacation to Cozumel. Both of these experiences left a lasting impression on me that make me very thankful that I took the time away from my usual summer routine.

I got invited to Belize under the auspices of teaching swimming to a population where swim instruction is a luxury. I know what the statistics are as far as poor minority youth drowning in the US, and it just made sense that if I could in any way affect that in Belize, then I needed to go. Needlesss to say, the swim portion of my week went really well. With each day, more and more kids showed up, often with parents, to learn how to swim and participate in the activities we planned. The more profound part of my time, however, was spent working in Holy Cross Anglican School and learning about the impoverished San Mateo area of the island.

Holy Cross is situated very close to the prime beachfront real estate of San Pedro, yet socially it seemed to be worlds away. While the beachfront was full of vacationing scuba divers, and fishermen, the neighborhood just outside of the doors of Holy Cross featured one-room "houses" many of which didn't have electricity or running water. The infrastructure of this neighborhood consisted of loosely held together planks that were far from sturdy and would deposit you into the swamp if you happened to make a misstep. Yet, despite these conditions, the children demonstrated the type of spirit that one expects to find in children who want for nothing. I found myself doing more observing than "teaching" because I wanted to understand how the children developed such aspirations in the face of poverty that often chokes away the ability to dream. I learned that for these students, the school was a way out. I learned that for the families of San Mateo, there was appreciation of those who came simply looking to help and not to judge. The trip confirmed to me that it is okay to have a "missionary" mindset as long as the MISSION is the focus and not the displacement of local cultural norms because they are viewed from a deficit perspective. In this case, the mission was to help build and prepare a school to open in the fall that would continue to allow children to dream and have access to opportunities that one day might allow them to return as adults and keep their neighborhood from being co-opted by outside interests.

In addition to the quality time with my wife, Cozumel afforded me the opportunity to do some "leisure" reading for the first time in years. It may seem strange that my leisure book was Marc Lamont Hill's Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life: Hip Hop Pedagogy and the Politics of Identity, but the two days I spent reading this book were as enjoyable as the Mrs. reading one of her Sandra Brown romance novels. I read slowly by nature and the process is even slower when I start an academic text, but given my background as a teacher, and a lover of hip hop, I anxiously tore into this one, and Professor Hill did not disappoint.

Many scholars who study the utility of hip hop as it pertains to educating youth tend to focus on one aspect of the culture such as the linguistics or the sociological ramifications, but Dr. Hill's course, which focused on hip hop songs as texts to be analyzed allowed for the engagement of all aspects of hip hop culture. The course, which he co-taught in a Philly HS hit home not simply because I grew up there, but instead of the fact that through their analysis and discussion, the class dealt with the complexities of being part of a hip hop generation. There is misogyny and love, consumerism and social conscience, and often these contradictions lie within the same artist. How does a hip hop head who grew up on KRS and Rakim receive Soulja Boy and Plies? The same question can be asked in reverse. So for me, the beauty of Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life is that despite the goals that he had for analyzing classic "texts" such as Summertime by the Fresh Prince and Fuck tha Police by NWA, the students had different views. However, because of the exposure, they were able to engage in important identity exploration. The use of the student's own voices adds a distinct autheniticity to Hill's reporting of the study.

Ultimately, my work in Belize and leisure reading in Cozumel taught me that I cannot begin to use the education and training I have received until I am first able to listen and then be willing to share at a level comparable to those with whom I am working. It is these pre-requisites that set the table for transformational learning to take place.


  1. Jonathan, you remind me of my very favorate book on teaching: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed...
    You have learned one of the most important lessons: that people, no matter what their living conditions, have so much to teach!
    I wish you much success,
    cousin claudia

  2. Cousin Claudia, funny you mention Freire, 'cuz that was one of last summer's "leisure reading" choices. There's also something to be said for empowering people to teach, no matter their social position.

  3. Belize sounds like it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. Glad the fam got away to Cozumel, although I'm disappointed that your leisure reading did not consist of any novels by yours truly...