Students in a Schenectady High School English class on Thursday did what students in English classes everywhere do: they analyzed a text for style, structure and meaning. They also listened to some rap.
“It’s the real stuff,” senior Riley White said as he led the class in breaking down Blue Laces 2, a song by recently-killed Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle.
The song – which touches on Hussle’s financial success, his life growing up in the streets of South LA and his community activism – served as a platform for the class to discuss life in Schenectady, how media portrayals differ from reality and what it means to be a true grassroots movement. Diving into each verse one at a time – and, yes, listening to the song repeatedly – the students explored how the lyrics move from figurative to anecdotal and explicit to figurative again.
The lesson was just another day in Hip Hop as Literature, a half-year elective class for Schenectady High School seniors taught by teacher Colleen Wyga. The class is quite popular among students who largely endorsed their experiences in it.
“It’s extremely fun,” said senior John Bluford, who hopes to study music production at Hudson Valley Community College next year. “We listen to music and we get everything done.”
Some of the students said the hip hop course did more to help them express themselves than any other class they had taken while in high school. Many of the students echoed White’s view that the songs they studied were “the real stuff.”
“It brings out the best in people, it opens your mind to other things,” said senior Wakeem Medina, who stood up out of his seat when he wanted to deliver a point during Thursday’s class discussion. “Stepping in here gave me power, basically. It gave me my voice, the voice of Schenectady.”
Students this year could also pick elective English courses that explored “Heroes and Legends,” comedy and satire and sports literature. Beginning in the fall however, Schenectady seniors will also have the opportunity to take English courses in African American literature, literature and social justice and the “Power of Words: from Slang to Profane.”
A new social studies course, “#activism,” will explore the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements and the intersections of modern activism and social media. In the sciences, new courses are taking advantage of the district’s new “makerspace” lab, which is outfitted with a 3-D printer and laser cutter. A new math class, Statistics in Sports, will explore how statistics and probabilities are used in sports analysis.
The new courses – around eight in total – reach across various subject areas, serving mostly as outlets of interest for seniors who have completed other academic requirements and passed mandatory Regents exams. Some of the new elective courses are also open to younger students. A product design and engineering course, listed as an entry-level course, drew enough student registrations to fill six course sections – well over 150 students.
The addition of six new teachers scattered across subject areas – part of a $4.8 million expansion planned in next year’s school district budget – will help staff the new courses.
“We are trying to make more electives that are appealing to students, more engaging electives,” high school counselor and scheduling point person Chelsea Houghton said.
During years of budget cuts, the high school trimmed back its overall course offerings, reducing them to a bare minimum as staff and other student services were eliminated.
“We had to go to a very basic selection of course offerings,” said Kerri Messler, district director of literacy and English programs.
The cuts also created scheduling issues for students who couldn’t find enough classes to fill a full day; many students in recent years have had to schedule study halls to fill empty spaces in their calendar, something school leaders want to minimize.
The move to develop new courses, particularly those centered on topics of interest to students, has been in the works for a few years now. Karin Callahan, English faculty chair at the high school, said three years ago the teachers surveyed students about electives they would be most interested in, leading to the creation of the heroes and legends and other elective classes. Next year’s influx of new courses, though, marks one of the biggest increases teachers and counselors at the school could remember.
“What we would’ve predicted isn’t necessarily what they choose,” Callahan said of gauging student interest. “Now, we have even more.”
One of the new classes will be an extension of what had been operating as an after-school club called Voices of Schenectady. The club, which created an online platform to publish student writing, music and art, aims to surface the stories and artistic expressions of Schenectady students. Wygal, who teaches the hip hop class, will be leading the Voices of Schenectady class.
“We are trying to inspire each other and trying to inspire the rest of the school, too,” said senior Julia Smith, who has participated in the club.
For students in Wygal’s hip hop class, the content, the kind of stuff they will listen to when at home or hanging out with friends, serves as an easier on ramp to literary concepts and analysis that more traditional classes.
“It was like my mind was being stuffed,” Medina said of other classes. “The other classes only gave me a fraction of what my mind can really do.”
High school senior Lynnaya Collier noted that the class wasn’t afraid to face the realities of students’ lives.
“This is one of the realest classes here at Schenectady High School, it’s a real world class,” she said. “It’s not a censored class.”