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Literacy Through Hip Hop provides at-risk youth with more than education

Glen Barbeau and students in the 'Literacy Through Hip Hop' program. YONGE STREET MEDIA/Dan Epstein.

There is a sadness to the young boy when he first walks into the room, sits at his desk and begins to distract himself with poker chips, stacking them up and knocking them down over and over again. The other students file in. There are only a couple of them, handpicked by the Toronto District School Board to participate in D.A. Morrison Middle School’s intensive support program (ISP). Some of them have learning disabilities, some are plagued by personality or mood disorders. They seem to do as they please. That is, until Nils Blondon walks in.

Blondon is the facilitator of the Literacy Through Hip Hop (LTHH) program that operates out of Parkdale Project Read, a community-based organization that provides literacy programs for youth and adults. He spends his Thursday mornings interacting with D.A. Morrison’s ISP students, teaching them about the history and globalization of hip hop and all its subcultures, including breakdancing, emceeing and graffiti. Similar programs exist throughout the city, but this is the only one that aligns with the province’s curriculum.

When class begins, the kids become visibly excited. Austin Butler, 12, is eager to talk about his favourite song, “Not Afraid” by Eminem. Garnet Rogers-Morrisey, 12, wants to interact with Blondon’s PowerPoint presentation, which includes a touch screen and clicker designed to engage the students through movement. Blondon plays a video called “Man of 10,000 Sound Effects” featuring Police Academy star Michael Winslow. The shy student laughs and his warmth is contagious.

“One of the things that I really stress about LTHH is you don’t have to be a hip hop fan to identify with the medium we’re representing,” says Blondon. “What I advocate is creativity above everything else. Whether or not that comes in the form of rapping, singing, dancing, drawing or taking pictures, it’s all fine. It’s about giving kids a place to express themselves creatively and fostering that creative expression and encouraging it.”

Blondon began teaching LTHH programs more than two years ago and quickly became the program’s director. A friend told him about a posting she saw at the University of Toronto, where Blondon is pursuing a part-time degree in English with a minor in history and religion. A life long Hip Hop fan with experience in teaching, he jumped at what he thought was a volunteer opportunity. It was a welcome surprise when it turned out to be a paid position.

“For me it was the perfect marriage of two things I’m eternally passionate about. I basically lost my mind when I heard about it,” he says. Blondon and his fellow instructor Jason Pearson teach youth and adult drop in programs at several locations including Winona Drive Senior Public School, Fairbank Junior Middle School, Covenant House, Tecumseh Senior Public School, and soon SKETCH, a community arts initiative for homeless and street youth. A large part of Blondon’s role is networking to build these partnerships and expand the program across the region.

It’s a little different at D.A. Morrison. The program’s curriculum is customized in accordance to the Ontario Language Curriculum, which is the standard for the Toronto District School Board. Today’s lesson is about beatboxing and vocal strategies, a method that simultaneously teaches the students about vocal range, pitch, tone and sound effects, while also tapping into their love of music. Students take turns at the end of the class to record their own mixes with an iPad and an online program.

“There’s a lot of apathy, so often with these guys you have to find their ‘island of competency,’ so you find their strength and you build from that,” says ISP teacher Glen Barbeau, or “Mr. B” as the kids call him. Barbeau is only 28, but he has a natural knack for connecting with his students. He encourages them throughout the class and works with Blondon to ensure they stay engaged. Yonge Street’s visit there is peaceful, but this is not always the case. Barbeau has been sworn at consistently and there have been incidents of physicality, violence and destruction, many of which have resulted in suspensions.

“With these students if you throw a test at them, if you teach out of a textbook, it’s not going to work,” Barbeau says. “Any education and any learning has to be presented to them in a way that they want to do it because you can only motivate them so much and you can reward them, but if you’re pushing it’s not sustainable. You have to find something they enjoy and go from there. Nils and his program LTHH are wonderful in that a lot of my guys like hip hop so that was a way in. They like discussing things and videos and images, so that’s the type of teaching strategy you have to employ.”

In speaking with the students after the class, it becomes evident that there is a special place in their hearts for the program. They told Yonge Street they look forward to Thursdays because LTHH “doesn’t feel like school” and they love “hanging out with Nils.” I watched as shy, reserved kids with social anxieties opened up and spoke enthusiastically about what they’ve learned and love about hip hop. I saw Blondon and Barbeau show compassion for kids the education system refuses to ignore. Without the program, many of these students would be unable to complete their education.

Both teachers went through special education programs when they were students, crediting this to their ability to pass high school. They recognize that children learn in different ways and try to capture that as much as possible. One of these ways is through rewards. LTHH keeps the students excited because the program culminates in a recording session at St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club in the Annex.

Similar programs exist in other underprivleged areas of the city to encourage youth and build leadership skills. Lost lyrics, an after school program operating out of the Malvern and Jane-Finch neighbourhoods, is perhaps the biggest. It shares a like-minded mandate of “educating and empowering our community.” LTHH may be smaller, but it was one of the firsts. It has seen its size fluctuate over the past four years due to a depreciated funding model from TD Canada Trust. The bank recently agreed to extend its funding for an additional year, but Blondon will still spend much of the summer applying for grants.

“What’s most important when dealing with at-risk kids is the ability to listen, above all else, and the ability to encourage,” Blondon says. “That’s it. That’s the main thing. Listen and if you see a spark of something, encourage it.”

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street’s managing editor. You can follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.