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Youth program breaks barriers

Story by Ashton Weis

Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins, two Harding Middle School teachers, created a community of expression and openness in their classroom.

These two teachers are leading the charge in deconstructing minority issues surrounding education in Des Moines, and they aren’t doing it alone. Parents, administrators, outside community members and the students have teamed up to bridge the gap between minorities and education.

Take a step into Rollins’ classroom, where Lang and Rollins co-teach “Hip-Hop: Rhetoric & Rhyme,” and instantly notice the difference of their room compared to the traditional, desks-facing-front classroom.

Here, the students’ desks face one another. Groups of four create student microcosms and open the lines between the students. The students in the room don’t profess their opinions to the teachers to be graded — instead they use the other students to express their thoughts
and ideas.

The two teachers also have other responsibilities at Harding. Lang teaches speech and drama while Rollins is a civics and literacy teacher.

“Hip-Hop: Rhetoric & Rhyme,” one of five programs that Lang and Rollins are responsible for, teaches a group of eighth graders how to express themselves outside of their racial identities.

“Movement 515,” “Minorities on the Move,” “Share the Mic” and “Urban Leadership 101” are the other four programs under their jurisdiction.

All four classes teach youth in Des Moines how to deconstruct racial barriers and express themselves in positive ways. “Hip-Hop: Rhetoric & Rhyme” has these same goals, but doesn’t stop there.

“We refer to it as a hybrid between literacy and history objectives,” Rollins said. “And so, we try to fuse those two ideas, as far as subject matter goes, but then we do that through a hip-hop lens. Everything we investigate, English-wise and history-wise, we always do it through
hip-hop culture.”

The group of students enrolled are specifically invited to the class, based on a number of components.

One such component is a “minority” status. Most of the students in the class are either a racial minority or a gender minority. Lang and Rollins acknowledge that they are approaching their students with potentially explosive topics.

“We’re very candid with our students. We don’t hold our tongue, we don’t hold back,” Rollins said. “We’re very vulnerable in front of our students. We’re very honest and open. We talk about our mistakes and our own paths, and then at the same token, we also talk about our white privilege, and how we grew up in pretty high, upper-middle class homes and didn’t really have a lot of problems. And we’re not afraid to tell our kids that they’re going to have a much more difficult time as a result of that.”

In addition to dealing with their students openly and candidly, they are learning about each other.

“They realize that they’re not really that much different from each other,” Lang said.

This program has contributed to the overall change in atmosphere at Harding. Although there is not any quantifiable data at this point, the teachers and administrators have noticed a huge shift in behavior.

Three years ago, the school underwent a reconstruction of the ways they dealt with student behavior in conjunction with creating this class. Jake Troja, the vice principal of Harding, said the behavioral reconstruction and “Hip-Hop: Rhetoric & Rhyme” go hand-in-hand.

“It’s another tool that we have to help our students become better people,” Troja explained.

Troja takes part in the other programs Lang and Rollins have created. Including the overall changes at Harding, Lang and Rollins are noticing increased engagement with their
students’ parents.

“This year, parents come to us for conferences,” Lang said. “They call us; they love what’s happening. They want to know their kids can stay involved in our programming, because we genuinely love these kids. We build some relationships with them and part of that is building strong relationships with their parents, to get them to trust us..”

Parents are deeply impressed with the ways that Lang and Rollins are teaching their kids to express themselves.

Judy Miller, whose son Davonte is taking the class, noticed a positive change in her son.

“I think the class has helped him express himself differently. Through this class I’ve learned a little bit more about my son that he obviously kept from me,” Miller said. “I didn’t know he had issues with his dad being gone and things like that. This class and poetry has helped him let that out and express it.”

Chandra Nelson, whose daughter Chyanne is also taking the class, couldn’t agree more with Miller.

“She’s able to express herself a lot better, without arguing with me. She just has a major positive emotional outlook. She was one way one day and started going to this class and came back completely different,” Nelson said.

While the class functions as an incentive and has increased both the literacy and attendance at Harding, Rollins was initially discouraged about the eighth graders’ transition
to high school.

“We’ve found that kids are very successful when they’re with us, and then when they transition to high school, they’re falling off. I initially took that data as a negative,” Rollins said.

Rollins and Lang were approached by the school district, which acknowledged that it didn’t have the mechanisms in place to continue to support the students who needed it.

This led to the creation of “Urban Leadership 101,” a class for freshmen through seniors. The class, co-taught by Lang and Rollins, will focus on community ties and recognizing all of the options for students after high school.

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