Kendrick Lamar lesson at Westerville South explores poetry, music and social movement


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The students in Emily Swank-Kavanaugh’s International Baccalaureate English class at Westerville South High School have spent the past week in a new unit that explores the connection between Kendrick Lamar’s music and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

But before students could examine Lamar’s works and their lasting impact on the fight for racial justice, Swank-Kavanaugh wanted her students to wrap their minds around some serious terms.

During a recent lesson, she projected a slide for her students that read “Institutionalized Racism - What does this term mean?” and laid the foundation for their upcoming discussion. 

“You guys do a really great job living in the gray area,” she said. “You are OK not having definitive answers sometimes…The reason nothing is definitive in this conversation is because the work is continuous. We’re talking about undoing 400 years worth of stuff and we’re not going to do that in a 40-minute class period. There might be some places where we misstep, where we have questions instead of answers, where we will have to listen instead of talk. There are going to be places in this conversation where we’re talking about some heavy stuff. We’ve got to be in it to learn, in it to explore, in it to make connections to things.”

Swank-Kavanaugh started teaching the Kendrick Lamar unit after the International Baccalaureate program revisited their English curriculum in 2019 to include protest musicians as poets. Under the revision, teachers could dedicate their lessons to one of four musicians: Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Lamar, whose song “Alright” became a protest anthem for the Black Lives Movement. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN in 2018, the first time in the prize's history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.

“One of them really reflects our school population,” she said. “For me, it was a no-brainer.” 

She discovered exploring Lamar’s works with students provided an accessible way to talk about poetry and gave students a safe space to talk about heavier topics such as institutional racism and white privilege. 

“It’s been a way to level the playing field,” she said. “Having his face and space in the classroom opens up the discussion.”

She sought to do something similar with her other classes, looking for a creative way to get material to students. She settled on Beyonce’s Lemonade album, which offers a portrait of the inner lives of Black women. Through Beyonce’s works, Swank-Kavanaugh explores topics such as multigenerational trauma and Black feminism with her Comparative Studies classes.

With her recent Kendrick Lamar lesson, she gave students two minutes to write their thoughts about institutionalized racism — what they know or think they know about the term and their own individual experiences and thoughts. Afterward, they had to share what they wrote with a partner before she launched a class discussion.

“Institutionalized racism is when there are racist laws, policies, rules put in place,” one student said. “They are so embedded in society that it takes uprooting the entire system to change it. I think of redlining, the 13th amendment, food deserts and the education system.”

Another student shared institutionalized racism goes beyond the actions of the individual and more so reflects how the system operates.

“We are living in the gray area today and it is uncomfortable to not be definitive or derive at an answer or a conclusion at the end of a conversation but it’s the actual awareness that is the point,” Swank-Kavanaugh said. 

She then poses another question to her students: Where do you see this at play within the music industry?

Student after student weighed in. They brought up the “aggressive black woman” stereotype they’ve heard on “American Idol” when someone was talking about a black female contestant. They referenced an interview with musician Childish Gambino, who talked about how minorities are treated in the music industry. They shared their feelings when a local college honored Black music composers in honor of Black History Month but the cover of the program featured white performers. They talked about a Black country singer in a music competition show who was noted for his race and not his talent. 

The discussion migrated to other topics such as cancel culture, fake wokeness and white saviorism. 

“I’ve seen quite a few people online who have said, ‘Well the Holocaust happened more recently than slavery ended but people aren’t still mad at Germans for that so why are Americans so mad about slavery,’” one student said. “It’s because in Germany they recognize what they’ve done and they teach other people about it. And here (in the U.S.), we don’t teach the deep roots of institutionalized racism so unless we educate ourselves, it’s not going to change.”

Swank-Kavanaugh said the discussion showcases a shared intellect among her students.

“Their lived experiences matter so greatly to their learning experience and that has been really interesting seeing that come to life,” she said. “It’s really a collaborative effort. I think that helps with these tough conversations too.”