by Jesse Hagopian
(This piece originally appeared on I Am an Educator on April 7, 2020 and has been reprinted with permission.)
Yesterday, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee announced that all of the schools in the state would be closed for in-person learning for the rest of the year and all instruction will be online only.
This announcement was hard on my two elementary-school-aged kids. My 5th-grade son won’t get to participate in the week-long overnight camp that is a rite of passage for all the kids at his school — they have spent their entire elementary years looking forward to participating in this major event. They really wanted to perform in the spring Multicultural dance that won’t happen. And they are truly shaken by not getting to say goodbye to their teachers and friends.
And yet the resiliency of my kids in these difficult times has been remarkable. This past week of their education at home has led to an explosion of creativity that has helped us mitigate the challenges of social isolation in the COVID-19 era.
There is so much pressure on parents right now to keep their students on pace with the regular classroom curriculum, but what I have discovered is that engaging my kids in conversations about this unprecedented global pandemic and then allowing my kids plenty of time to play has resulted in an outpouring of insight and originality. In fact, my older son, whose MC name is now Freeze 32, with his dear friend — whose moniker is Gucci Grape — that he’s had since his days at Central Branch Preschool, created a hit single for these times.
Their new magnum opus is titled, “Quarantined.” And it bumps.
The hook goes, “Quarantined, cause of COVID-19,” and Gucci Grape probably speaks for millions of kids right now when he says:
Not allowed to see my friends,
dude I’m at my rope’s end,
this virus hard to comprehend,
everything fun they must suspend,
all I can do is wait it out,
don’t let it make me fade out,
the whole country is in doubt,
how many cases?
I can’t count!
In the final verse, my son spits these lines:
I am Freeze 32
this disease is like the flu,
but two times more contagious
running out of masks, this country is outrageous
we must be courageous
every other country gives it a monthly check
I live in the city with the big tech
kids don’t have computers makes me feel disrespect
stop being racist towards all the Chinese
when it’s all of our disease
we must work with one another
not fight each other
The kids’ passion and ability to capture their experience in this moment deeply moves me. My son’s friend Gucci Grape had been writing raps and making beats for some time, so I was excited when they connected over FaceTime this week and transformed themselves into the hip-hop group called, Triple S — which stands for South Seattle Swagger. Freeze 32 has been a hip-hop head for a while, listening to the music (from back in my day through to the latest trap beats) and breakdancing. He’s been dancing since he was four years old when he started classes with the world champion Massive Monkees breakdance crew — studying with the amazing Anna Banana Freeze and Flow Funk. He’s built on those skills with his school’s amazing music and dance teacher. Now he was disappearing in his room, with his pencil and pad, and emerging with these imaginative, insightful lyrics over fresh new beats from Gucci Grape.
Over the course of each day last week they would write a rap, record their lyrics, send it to each other, and record another verse until the song was complete. This project covered such subjects as writing, social studies, music, technology, and more. My younger 7-year-old son, now calling himself Young Switcha, did the cover art for the song. It may not have been the standard school curriculum but the learning was deep, socially relevant, and personally meaningful for the kids: just what education should be.
Many things had to happen to allow this creative explosion to happen. First, we are so fortunate to have the Internet and an iPad to help allow this back and forth of creativity. As my son points out in the song, “I live in the city with the big tech/kids don’t have computers makes me feel disrespect.” Another thing that helped allow my son to develop his ideas for his lyrics was his engagement with the newly-created, “The Student Coronavirus Creative Response Project: Youth Voices Countering COVID 19,” that I helped create.
The project began when my friend Inderia Bahner called me and asked if I would be interested in helping to create a project that could engage youth in this frightening public-health crisis — to help them understand and express themselves about how the coronavirus was impacting the most vulnerable communities. I had worked with Indira for years at the Girls First program, designed to empower young girls of color, so I knew this could be another important collaboration. We were both sickened — not only by how much wealth is concentrated in the Seattle area, but also by how many young people we work with have the resources to help them mitigate this new health crisis. Indira made the first draft of the project and, with her husband, set up a website for the project. I recruited my educator friends Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon, an elementary Ethnic Studies teacher in Seattle, and Professor Wayne Au, to join the project. Wayne and I continued to edit and refine the project while Kaitlin, also the founder of Colorful Pages, helped translate the project into an elementary school version.
The seven prompts we developed for the students to research include:
Prompt #1: Women, Women of Color, and Helping Professions
Prompt #2: Income and Debt
Prompt #3: Medical Coverage
Prompt #4: Mental Health, Addiction, & Developmental Disability
Prompt #5: Jail/Prison Populations and COVID-19
Prompt #6: Combating anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism
Prompt #7: The Impact of COVID-19 on Undocumented & Immigrant Communities
After the project was fully developed, I was eager to try it out with my own kids. We went to Kaitlin’s elementary school version of the project and printed out the powerful lesson plan she created. My kids and I discussed the prompts that had us consider what COVID-19 is; engage with an introduction to activist writing; reflect on what a community is and what the most important needs of a community are; and research ways that coronavirus is impacting the most vulnerable people in our communities.
We then set the project aside for the time being as my kids weren’t sure what kind of project they would actually want to create.
What happened next was magical. Instead of setting out to complete the assignment, Freeze 32 turned to playing, rapping, and trying to stay socially connected with his friends. It was only after he emerged from his room yelling, “Dad, you have to hear this new track we made,” and we listened to the song, that we realized they had also completed the project. “Quarantined” is just the first single they are releasing, but look out for a whole new album they will be releasing soon!
Schools will eventually open again, and when they do, my experience of the past week has further underscored to me that we need to rethink the entire model of education we have inherited. We already know that education technology companies will be hoping to seize on this new experience of so many people doing remote learning to institutionalize more online instruction in order to increase the sale of their products. This would only further isolate kids and detract from the power of collaboration in education.
But we have the opportunity to highlight an alternative proposal for the transformation of education that centers on the deep learning that is possible through increased time for play, music, art, and studying oppression, inequality, and societal problem solving.
But maybe what I’m most excited for is the Triple S dance party when this is all over.
The new single “Quarantined” by Triple S is now live. Check it out at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am2KMLGxu1c.
Jesse Hagopian is an award-winning educator and a leading voice on issues of educational equity, the school-to-prison-pipeline, standardized testing, the Black Lives Matter at School movement, and social justice unionism. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, an author, public speaker, organizer, and Ethnic Studies teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School.
Featured image: original artwork by Young Switcha and Jesse Hagopian.