1. The Education Gradebook

'Thug Notes' delivers the innovation needed in education

Published Sep. 4, 2013

'Thug Notes' begins like a Saturday Night Live skit: orchestral music, script fonts and the camera panning past leather-bound literary classics all lead up to — a doo rag-wearing black man who greets viewers with, "What's happening, B? This week, we're keeping it classy with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen."

This host, Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., proceeds to summarize Austen's novel with hip-hop parlance that's peppered with vulgarity and insensitive albeit deftly comical references. Sweets says the book tells the story of, "Elizabeth Bennett and her fine sisters." He refers to Darcy and Bingley as "hood-rich cats" and Wickham as a "smooth-talking soldier boy."

After the summary, however, comes insightful analysis. A few of my friends who watched the video said they now had greater understanding of the book — and wished that "Thug Notes" had been around when they were in high school.

"For some academics, I worry they're not aiming to make the themes of literature universal," said Sweets, who's portrayed by actor Greg Edwards but stayed in character to answer questions.

"But the truth is, the gift of literature is universal in meaning and should be made accessible to everyone on every plane. So, "Thug Notes" is my way of trivializing academia's attempt at making literature exclusionary by showing that even high-brow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion."

So the question is obvious: Could this comical YouTube series, which has grown in popularity since debuting earlier this year, be used as an actual educational tool? The short answer: yes.

The edgy approach captivates young people and many students would feel like teachers are trying to speak to them instead of at them. As for the language, it's coarse, but no different than what they hear in hip-hop songs every day on the radio.

Of course, you can't suggest "Thug Notes" be used in a high school setting without drawing ire. Its crude edges would strike some as offensive, while others would loudly lament how the presentation trades on the "gangster" stereotype that we need to move away from, not promote.

But in a state that continues to struggle with a high dropout rate, a subpar graduation rate and a staggering achievement gap, I would argue a greater good could come from its use. If it can be used as a tool to impact these specific areas, the end would justify the means.

So I see "Thug Notes," at the very least, being used as a tool for intensive reading classes with at-risk groups — students who have been identified as likely candidates to fail the FCAT or other comprehensive tests. It also would have to be used judiciously, for a number of reasons.

Teachers would need to explain that the stereotype is being used for comedic effect, to grab the attention of students. As Sweets said: "A student's attention is not charity. They will not volunteer their attention simply because the teacher is an authority figure."

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Also, you wouldn't want to discourage kids from doing the actual reading. "Thug Notes" would have to be designated as a tool to help students grasp the themes and, ideally, lead to improving their interpretative skills. You could compare and contrast Sweets' comical takes to what's actually in the book.

But it can't be used as a substitute because the reading passages on standardized tests won't be written with slang. Ultimately, the student would need to learn how the creators of "Thug Notes" went about understanding the classics and develop those same skills.

It might help if students were assigned the task of creating their own videos to communicate a book's themes and values — inviting them to use whatever character or language they believe would best deliver the message to other students.

In the end, the argument raises a larger point.

As we continue to struggle with keeping kids in school and improving their performance, novel approaches need to get more consideration. Improving parental involvement and better learning environments in the home is a goal, but we can't forsake the need to reach those students who chose the wrong parents and ended up with moms and dads either too busy or too apathetic to engage them and help them succeed.

The one-size-fits-all approach clearly isn't working for all. "Thug Notes" is just that, and if it didn't skirt the edges of good taste, I'm not sure it would have caught my attention or captivated so many students.

Maybe that's why YouTube is working with the producers to make these videos a more substantial asset for teachers and students.

That's all I'm saying.


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