Evolving Education: Cornell Got Afrika; Why Can’t We?

Cornell University is awesome.

I’ve never been there, though I think I know someone who spent a semester there, maybe.  Come to think of it, I think my uncle went there on a gymnastics scholarship in the 1960s.

Bah, that’s all irrelevant.  Cornell is awesome because they have signed on this guy as a visiting scholar.

In the 1970s and 1980s, DJ Afrika Bambaataa played a vital role in the development of hip-hop.  Without him, the entire musical landscape of the past forty years would look wholly different.  Bringing him on to Cornell’s campus in any educational capacity is huge, further validating what most of us already know to be a vital art and cultural form: hip-hop.

But why Cornell?  Why not East Down by the River High or South Just Over the Hill Middle School?  I’m not begrudging institutions of opportunity — I’m wondering how we can make the similar things happen everywhere.

Maine has a few visiting and residential artist programs for which grants may be written through the Maine Arts Commission.  These are competitive grants and yield great results for the schools fortunate enough to win them.  I was a beneficiary of such a program during my student teaching, when Maine Poet Laureate Baron Wormser arrived in my cooperating teacher’s classroom.  For that week, those students’ lives changed.

So, if we can raise a few sheckels, we might be able to get an incredibly talented artist to come and work with our students.  And that would be great.

Does it need to be that complicated, though?  What would happen if schools simply reached out into their communities and asked?

What if a local indie band ran a songwriting workshop with an English class and discussed with business students how the business side of music functions in a DIY environment?

What if a local MC sat in with a sociology or psychology class and submitted his lyrics for analysis and interpretation, while working with students to show how one’s cultural experiences become reflected in those lyrics?

What if a self-published author came to an art class and provided written inspiration for a gallery installation?

Sure, these individuals may not have the prestige, the experiences, a better known artist or craftsman might bring with them.  Is that what matters?

Well, actually, yes.  In part, it most certainly does matter.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a celebrity-oriented media culture.  And our students respond to these figures.   They feel a connection to them, a degree of intimacy despite the distance of a video screen or pair of ear buds.  And that familiarity influences their affect, opens them to ideas, to the messages, to the points to be made.

So how do we get the Afrika Bambataas into our high school classrooms?


How many of us ever try that?  Just ask.  Booking agents and management agencies can be accessed, publicists e-mailed. Tweets can be sent, Facebook walls can be populated, and in general, an effort can be made.

What’s the worst they say?  No?  Nothing really lost there except those less than herculean efforts.

What’s the best that can happen?  An artist shares their craft and inspires students to pursue their own?  Our students develop a richer sense of how culture informs expression and informs our daily lives?  The school becomes a partner with the artist and another avenue for creativity gets discovered?  Students see how the business worlds of music, art, film function in a meaningful, tangible way?

Yes, yes, yes, proper channels must be followed — volunteer coordinators engaged, proper paperwork submitted, prerequisite background checks and so on — and then the opportunities may unfold.

Now, if you’ll excuse me.  I have e-mails to Mark Ruffalo and Ben Folds to write.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

5 thoughts on “Evolving Education: Cornell Got Afrika; Why Can’t We?

  1. Just Ask. What a simple concept. One of my journalism students last year was really into the show “The Black Ops Brothers: Howe and Howe Tech” (I’ll be blogging on here about that at some point guaranteed). We emailed them and they were willing to do a skype video call. Unfortunately due to some scheduling and a semester change that didn’t happen but that was ENTIRELY the fault of things on our end at the school, NOT Howe and Howe Tech.

    With technology tools like video conferencing and Skype, these requests are even more possible to grant. Nothing beats the face to face shaking hands contact with a survivor of the holocaust for example (something else we’ve been blessed with twice since I’ve been at Mountain Valley High School), but a video call would have been very fulfilling as well. Who would turn that up?

    • So, Jeff, if I am reading you correctly, and I believe I am . . .

      You personally managed to completely ruin your students’ opportunity to learn from not only professionals in the field, but basic cable television star professionals in the field.

      That must feel awful . . .

      On the flipside, it’s good to know that MVHS has authentic learning experiences happening and that it has the tech infrastructure to make more of them.

      How do you make the Holocaust survivor events happen?

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