Gangtsa Rap is My Educational Philosophy

Music has a definitive influence on social interaction.  One of the most prominent forms of social interaction is school.  In this relationship, there have been many profiles of how hip-hop can influence education.  Two cases that stand out are Sam Seidel’s work in Hip Hop Genius and Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer’s Schooling Hip-Hop.  Both books take a deeper look at the context in which hip-hop principles can strengthen academic curricular implementation.

I can openly say rap and hip-hop have had a dramatic influence on who I am. I enjoy the music, it is a hot discussion topic amongst my friends, and musical knowledge has grown through it.  I am biased.  I love the reflection and implementation of Kendrick Lamar’s work by Brian Mooney.  However, I want to take it one step further.  I truly believe that adopting the “gangsta” rapper mentality is one that can guide educators to deeper learning.  I am not saying these mindsets are unique to hardcore rappers, but that when examine what characteristics define them can provide a framework for educators to deepen their practices and philosophy.  Let’s look at 3 gangsta rapper mindsets and 3 case studies:

Persistence – Coolio

Having a growth mindset is powerful.  Carol Dweck’s work challenges the way we approach improvement.  Part of this challenge is persistence.  People with a growth mindset see failure and setbacks as an indication that they should continue developing their skills rather than a signal that indicates, “This is something I’m not good at.”  Coolio is a great example of persistence.  Many people don’t know Coolio’s full story; they associate him with his carefree attitude and trademark hairstyle.  However, Artis Ivey, Jr.’s roller-coaster story provides a solid framework for educators to grow their own practices.  Born in the rough neighborhood of Compton, Coolio fell into gang life very early on.  He was a very promising young student, but his violent unstable persona would land him in jail at age of 17.  Coolio’s persistence would shine through as he extended his education at Compton Community College and his interest in rap and performing took off.  However, the stranglehold that his violent up-bringing had would cause continued struggles.  While trying to make his breakthrough, a crack cocaine addition derailed his ability to be successful in the music industry.  Instead of letting this stop him in his tracks, he entered rehab and even took a job as a firefighter to help relieve the desire to go back down the wrong path.  By 1994, Coolio had overcome growing up in a gang environment, serving time in jail, and a drug addiction to release his debut album.  What if he would have succumb to any of these hurdles?

Coolio’s story is a great model for persistence and resilience.  As educators, many times we face pitfalls that cause us to question keep pushing forward.  Whether it be toxic cultures, struggling students, or state mandates, many times we feel that the journey is not worthy of the destination.  Coolio’s persistence in not letting his surrounding environment or downfalls stop his progression towards his goals was vital to his success in the music industry.  As educators, we can learn a lot about applying this same mentality to our situations.

Vulnerability – Tupac Shakur

Arguably one of the most influential rappers of all-time, Tupac was never one to shy away from his true feelings.  Tupac presented such a vulnerability in his words, that it made it hard not to listen to him. He wrote, “In the event of my demise, can’t breathe no more, hope I die for a principle, something I lived for.”  Shakur spoke very candidly about life and death.  After filming Juice in 1992, he had a very candid interaction with producer Neil Moritz. “Ten years from now,” said Moritz, “you’re going to be a big star.” “Ten years from now,” Tupac replied, “I’m not going to be alive.”

We all know the tragic ending to this story.  But by examining Shakur’s mode of operation, educators can learn a lot about vulnerability.  Many times educators feel they must have all of the answers.  The pressure of evaluations and standardized test cause many educators to put up walls or leave them guarded.  Tupac was a rapper that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he did with a conviction and honesty that left him vulnerable.  If Tupac was an educator, I would imagine him as someone who would challenge his students, but spend enough time building relationships and opening up to them that they would be vulnerable to take risks too.

As educator’s, many times, we are conditioned to believe that we must have all of the answers.  Tupac’s story and honesty in his work provides a solid framework for applying vulnerability to our work.  He spoke what he believed was the truth and this same message rang through in his music.  To truly open up our minds and our student’s minds, being vulnerable to successes and failures is vital to embracing a mindset of growth in schools.

Philosophical – Nasir Jones

If you have not ever watched, Time is Illmaticyou don’t know what you are missing.  The 2014 biopic profiles the growth and making of Nas’ 1994 debut album.  It profiles the social conditions that Nas experienced growing up in Queensbridge and influenced the development of his musical career.  If you have never listened to Nas’ early work, then you might not know why he embodies a true philosophical approach to bringing a rawness forward.  His prolific writing has confronted issues of poverty, race relations, and the struggle to survive on the streets.  His music provides an intellectual perspective and depth to it than many times can get overlooked by the catchy beats the words are set to.  The influence that his work has on the growth and development of the urban outlook on life has a similar breadth as that of the prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment in Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke.  Let’s take a deeper look at some of the work from Nas’ It Was Written.  In “If I Would the World”, Nas sings, “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin.  Imagine going to court with no trial.  Lifestyle cruising blue Bahama waters, no welfare supporters more conscious of the way we raise our daughters.  Days are shorter, nights are colder. Feeling like life is over, these snakes strike like a cobra.”  This same veracity can be seen throughout Nas’ career.  At no point is he afraid to tackle a topic that was not prevalent in the community he was raised in.  The rawness and philosophical approach he takes is second to none.

As an educator, what does it mean to be philosophical?  I believe that it means to be rooted in a deep nature of knowledge and existence.  Many times, we forget where we actually are.  Who are kids actually are.  Nas never forget what it was like growing up in Queensbridge and was not hesitant to tackle the issues that faced the community around him.  Many times in education, we try to apply band-aids (1:1 tech, etc.) without truly tackling what our students need most: a true sense of their own reality and existence and a way to challenge it.  Educators can apply this same philosophical approach that Nas did in order to open the door.

Persistence, vulnerability, and a philosophical nature are three mindsets that have defined many “gangsta” rapper’s stories that need to be present in educators in order to deepen the work we are doing in schools.  I am not saying that it is not there, I just think that we can learn more from hip-hop than just connecting or students with the art.  By applying these characteristics in the way these 3 rappers did, we can go far further in strengthen the context in which authentic learning happens.


To Think Like It’s Your First Year

I have experienced many firsts within the New Tech Network.  I started my first year of teaching.  I was part of a school opening.  I moved and begin my administration career.  And now, I will be transitioning into my first principalship.  Being a part of this network has taught me many things.  I find it most evident though, that having a start-up mindset is a must to be able to move from good to great.  If you have not ever read Jim Collin’s Good to Great, I highly recommend it.  In the book, Collin’s argues good-to-great transformations look dramatic and revolutionary on the outside but actually are organic, cumulative processes on the inside. There is no single defining action, no grand program, no one lucky break or miracle moment. Sustainable transformations follow a predictable pattern of buildup and breakthrough.


Coming back full circle, I have come to find that both new schools and schools with a long existing history experience the same hurdles in looking to transform from good to great.  However, it is clear that both types of schools must take on this start-up mindset to both imagine and re-imagine teaching, learning, and culture in their buildings.  There is a constant battle of overcoming time barriers, defining and redefining culture, and establishing an academic mindset of excellence.  There are 3 integral factors that come to mind though for both new schools and existing schools to think like it’s their first year:


Imagination can be a dangerous thing.  Many times it can make us forget about what is actually happening in the moment.  However, imagination is key to unlock the door to what is possible.  New schools are bound by the chains of the unknown.  Existing schools are bound by the chains of history and tradition.  Both schools must be able to break free from these chains and imagine new possibilities.  Two examples.

  1. 6 years ago, when we were opening our school at New Tech Academy, we had to think outside of the traditional schedule structure in order to provide time for reflection and cultural growth.  We were not bound by the unknown.
  2. At New Tech High School, with a rich tradition, we are rethinking our portfolio experience.  Instead of being bound by history, we are using it to learn and grow to advance our portfolio into a brand new experience for students to reflect on their time at NTHS.

Imagination is key to both in being able to appreciate the now, but not be confined by what you have in front of you.


Constant Connected Learners

The second factor is something that we expect of our students: to be constant life-long learners.  Many times though, both new and existing schools struggle to be learning organizations.  New schools many times have a blank canvas.  They focus on the dramatic and revolutionary and don’t spend as much time on the organic holistic growth.  Existing schools face a similar struggle but from an opposite lens.  The day-to-day grind tends to bog down these schools from spending the time and energy on moving forward as learners.  It is imperative for the staff’s of both types of schools to trust the learning process.  By being learners, we put aside our opinions and perceptions, and allow the learning organization core to develop a keen focus for moving forward.


Along with this, there must be a sense of connectedness be created.  Now, I know it is nearly impossible to live in an environment in which all adult learners agree.  However, for both new and existing schools must establish an platform for discourse and brainstorm to turn into action.  Consensus does not mean that everyone must agree, but being a learning organization means that everyone must commit to moving the core forward together.

Lastly, new and existing schools must be willing to learn from each other.  New schools make their decisions based on lessons learned.  Existing schools can use new schools as a model for transformation.  Here in Napa, the comprehensive high schools (Napa and Vintage, along with American Canyon opening as a NTN school 5 years ago) are transitioning to the New Tech model next year.  Essentially, they will be redefining themselves as “new” schools.  With New Tech High being the flagship school of the New Tech Network (opening in 1996), it is exciting to see this transformation happen around us.  As a community, the possibilities are endless for our students.  However, it will be vital for us to all learn from one another to truly open the door to the future. We must all have this first year start-up mindset.  As tough as this might be for some to swallow and get over, we can learn from their fresh perspective and they can learn from the foundation we have developed.

Avoiding Fear of Fear

Fear is such a powerful thing.  It can stop any person or school in its tracks.  Fear of failure, fear of results, fear of the unknown.  I don’t know how many times I have seen fear cripple an idea before it could even be tested.  For both new and existing schools to develop this start-up mindset, they must trust fear and not create a fear of fear.  Not all ideas or initiatives will work.  But schools must trust that this is okay.  A fear of fear creates doubt.  It can cause educators to take the easy road.  It can cause schools to do what they know will work.  Both of these can stop a school from moving forward as a learning organization and thinking like it’s their first year.  Successes and failures inform our future.  Good and negative data allows us to transform learning cultures.  I have seen this a lot with the College Readiness Assessment implementation in New Tech schools (CRA).  Both new and existing schools have implemented a new way to measure critical thinking and written communication.  This is scary.  However, to deepen the level at which we prepare our students for what is next, we must be willing to try, to growth.  If we let fear get in the way, it can skew the information we get from initiatives like the CRA.  It might be good, it might be bad.  But without taking the chance, schools will never know.

Imagination, constant connected learning, and avoiding fear of fear will allow both new and existing schools to pave the road for their own growth into the future.  New schools and existing schools experience many of the same pitfalls, just from different lenses.  Embracing the challenge in front of you with an open-mind and an ardor for the possibilities, will allow us all to imagine and re-imagine what education can and will look like for our students, in schools of any age.


The Entrepreneurship of Economics

Everyone that has experienced a traditional high school Economics course not doubtably has fond memories of opportunity cost and supply & demand (said no one ever).  However, it is clear that with the shift of the educational world towards 21st Century skills and deeper learning, courses like Economics seem to remain stagnate in their approach.  I was blessed as a high school social studies teacher at New Tech Academy in Fort Wayne, IN and now as a school administrator at New Technology High School in Napa, California, to experience first hand how entrepreneurial efforts can drastically change the way students experience economics first hand.


Now first and foremost, I know the constraints of staffing, master schedules, and standards can seem as a barrier to implementing an entrepreneurship program at your school.  What I do know is clear, is there is a beautiful marriage that already exists between the entrepreneurial spirit and what happens in an economics classroom.  Through project-based learning, and thinking outside the box, we were able to open up our students to a whole new world of possibilities.  Here is a quick recipe for how it was done:

Brainstorm and Foundations

When the idea for blowing-up the traditional Economics course came about, I knew that I could not do it alone.  In today’s world, most communities already have a strong network of entrepreneurs and think tanks that can be tapped into. Fort Wayne, IN is no stranger to this.  Resources such as the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, Founders, and  In partnership with Steve Franks and Jamal Robinson, of Believe in a Dream, we began to build the framework for our program, “Believe in Your Business“.  Essentially, we took the traditional business plan competition, married it with the principles of the lean start-up movement, and embedded it in the curriculum of an 18 week Economics course.  The semester long “entrepreneurship” Economics course was born!  We decided that it was important to start with 4 questions to help the students ensure their idea really could be a business they could execute:

  1. Is it doable?
  2. Am I passionate about it?
  3. Do I have the resources?
  4. Does it make my world a better place?

Now after I had the 18 weeks sketched out, it was important to create opportunities for the entrepreneurial mindset to be brought out in my students.  I was blessed that New Tech Academy’s school culture stands second to none, but it was vital that the foundation for approaching such a large and real project was something the students were prepared for mentally.  It would be hard, it would be messy, but it would be real.

What About the Standards?

Now the educator in me knew that we had a strong foundation, but I keep going back to the question, “What about the standards?”.  We had made it a clear goal to make sure that students did not miss out on any key economic concepts that they would experience in a traditional setting (whether it be from micro, macro, or international economics).  Utilizing the project-based learning design elements I learned from the New Tech Network, and McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design, I began to work backwards from what the final product would look like and created a road map to get the students to that point.  It was clear that the framework an entrepreneur uses to turn an idea into a company (resources like Co.Starters, The Lean Startup, Business Model Generation, and The Startup Owner’s Manual were vital in creating this course) and the phases of project-based learning fit perfectly together.  Within the confines of a REGULAR economics course, we were going to be able to dive completely into becoming entrepreneurs.

We mapped out how the standards would fit in.

Scaffold and Support

The principles of design thinking outlined by IDEO and Stanford’s guided our thinking throughout the course of our work.  How could we build empathy?  How could we turn our idea into an actual business?  Prototype. Prototype. Prototype.  These principles were integrated into the framework for our 18 week program: 6 three week phases.  These phases allowed us to naturally grow our business ideas while still testing them and revising them over time.

Along with creating a scaffolding structure that would support trial and error and growth, it was key that we created a system of support.  In this, we elicited a network of mentors to work with the businesses.  From the community, we got around 20 mentors to work with the groups throughout the semester.  These were small-business owners, inventors, lawyers, bankers, marketing experts, and so on.  Instead of creating a one-on-one mentorship, we decided that having every mentor touch every group multiple times would deepen the context in which the students were examining their ideas.  This network was vital to raising questions and taking the students in directions I could have never imagined.

Creating Belief

At the end of the day, all of the business walked out of the course learning all of the key economic principles they would have in any regular Econ course.  We covered scarcity, GDP, market structures, and barriers to trade.  BUT, we did it in a format that was REAL and we did it while getting our hands MESSY creating an actual business.  Each business walked out with a 30+ page business plan (adapted from the sections of the Business Model Canvas) and publicly presented their idea a half dozen times.  All businesses presented their proposals to our “Shark Tank” of investors and 5 groups were selected to present their business in the finals.

The business model canvas was key to both our road map and business plans.

Now, I was not prepared for the intensity that would ensue in the weeks before the semi-finals and finals.  The amount of detail and preparation that went into tweaking their business plans and pitches was far beyond anything I had seen.  Groups came early, stayed late, and worked deep into their free time to make sure they walked away with the prize.  What was that prize you ask?  Two groups were awarded with seed money to move forward, legal and accounting services to get started, an outlet to begin working as a company, and most importantly, relationships.  Relationships that would help guide them long after the class was over and graduation had commenced.

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Weaver Wear and Mallow Guard are two examples of these student-led ventures that are now bonafide businesses.  Weaver Wear just recently met with the CEO of Parkview Health, one of the largest hospital networks in Indiana, to review their product design and the needs of the hospital.  Mallow Guard was just recently at the largest outdoor and camping convention in northern Indiana to display their product.  These are real companies that have forever changed the lives of the students involved.



Not every school has the resources to launch a self-sustaining entrepreneurship or innovation program.  It is clear though that there is already an existing platform for entrepreneurship to thrive in: high school economics.  Rethinking the way that I taught economics was not an easy task.  It required me to shift my mindset, dive deep into my content, and develop a pathway for economics and entrepreneurship to grow together.  However, as the Believe in Your Business program has grown from just New Tech Academy to now open to high schoolers throughout northeast Indiana and even to other New Tech schools, it is clear that it can be done and students deserve the opportunity to experience economics through a different lens.