James Lyng High School Explores Social Justice through Hip Hop

Montreal - Friday, November 18, 2016

A group of four teachers from James Lyng High School in St. Henri recently joined two researchers from McGill University and a teaching artist from the WORD youth literacy program to visit the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota. The goal of this trip was to learn best practices for culturally relevant, social justice-oriented education rooted in hip hop culture.

The teachers and students of James Lyng have partnered with McGill University and three Montreal-based community organizations: Under Pressure (graffiti), WORD (recording arts & spoken word), and the YMCA in Pointe-Saint-Charles, to develop their own, innovative approach to educating young people. The school-university-community partnership is unique in its approach to education reform via the combined forces of its three-partner model.

This year, James Lyng has launched the second year of its “Urban Arts, Inspired Minds” comprehensive school reform project. With the goals of increased student engagement, autonomy, advocacy, critical literacy and academic achievement, James Lyng is working to build an approach to learning that allows students to construct their own projects and align those projects to provincial standards. In the past year, students have received provincial press coverage of a student-run art gallery, featuring art work such as painted skateboards from students, and a school-wide hip-hop arts festival. Students also collaborated with local muralists HoarKoar to paint the front of the school building in student-derived images. This year, students are developing a cross-curricular project exploring the history of the Turcot exchange. 

While visiting the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, the James Lyng team observed a school where students learn by making dance routines, music videos, songs, albums, sound-dampening devices, visual art, and more to receive credit for their education. Students also learn the vocational techniques necessary to become sound engineers, music producers and video-makers capable of making art of industry-level quality.

Each student at HSRA has a personal learning plan and an advisor responsible for helping them complete their plan. Students check in with their advisor at the beginning of the day and in the middle of the day, every day, in order to ensure students are staying on task with their work. Additionally, the school’s students learn through a mixture of projects, classes, and worksheets, setting a standard for innovative education models James Lyng now seeks to adapt to its own context.

This form of differentiated instruction practiced at HSRA and made possible by an advisory system has led teachers at James Lyng to begin exploring similar approaches to educating their students. Providing students the autonomy and ownership to master provincially-determined competencies through choice and agency, James Lyng aims to innovate its own school model in service of its students.

James Lyng High School serves 140 students between Grades 7 and 11 through graffiti, DJ’ing, breakdancing, emceeing and any other art form students find engaging.

Michael Lipset, a researcher at McGill University who is part of the Urban Arts, Inspired Minds project, says that everyone should keep their eye on this school and its students for more amazing work from the James Lyng Urban Arts Project.

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