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King College Prep History Teacher Uses Poetry to Unlock History

By Sam Cholke | November 11, 2013 7:16am
 Social Studies teacher Eric Young uses poetry to help teach his students history and also to help them cope with the loss of a classmate.
Eric Young Teacher of the Week
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KENWOOD — Eric Young starts his freshman world studies class on Wednesday at King College Prep with a simple call and response.

At the start of every lesson the social studies teacher now in his sixth year at the selective-enrollment high school drills terms like suffrage, imperialism and isolationism with simple mnemonics he writes that hover between hip hop and poetry.

As they slumped into desks before the 1:30 p.m. bell sounded, Young's freshmen students praised him as an amazing and funny teacher who uses poetry to make the class fun.

Poetry and hip-hop are some of Young’s major tools in the classroom today, and he uses them not only to instruct, but also to heal.

After the murder of student Hadiya Pendleton in January, Young urged his African American Culture Club members to write poetry with other students to work through the grief.

The work of the club culminated in a school-wide memorial service that Young helped organize and where he read a poem expressing his own sorrow.

Young tries to keep poetry an active part of King's identity, organizing poetry slams at the school, taking the kids to the annual Louder Than a Bomb festival and encouraging them to publish their writing.

Young said many of his students are just beginning to understand the complexities of the world and his job is to lead them through the difficult process of understanding the truth behind the simplistic versions of history they were told as children.

Early in the school year after a round of rhymes, Young passes out an anthropological report on the people that cling to absurd superstitions and masochistic rituals.

“A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee,” reads the 1956 “American Anthropologist” report by Horace Miner.

The students in the third-floor corner classroom slowly see their own culture exposed to them in descriptions of dentistry, dieting and medicine more familiarly used to describe an isolated and culturally backwards tribe.

“It gets them introduced to the concept of bias,” Young said.

Young said his own passion for the complexities of history was solidified in 1992 as a student teacher in Rochester, N.Y., when Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the Bahamas was fiercely debated on the 500th anniversary.

“It was almost a revolution of people wanting to use other sources,” Young said. “I think that timing was crucial for me.”

Young said he traces the genesis of his interest in history back to his days as a student in Philadelphia’s public schools in the early 1980s.

“I think history appealed to me because I didn’t think my history was being taught properly,” Young said, adding that it was also around the time “Rapper’s Delight” was released and he started becoming interested in using language in new ways.

Mark Lipscomb, another social studies teacher at King, said Young is extremely focused on the students and singularly respected among the students.

“They love him,” Lipscomb said. “He’s a hard worker and he’s really there for them.”

Lipscomb said it was a coup for King to lure Young away from Lincoln Park High School six years ago.

“One of the things I love here is I’m very, very spoiled,” Young said, adding that he has a permanent classroom that he didn’t have at the much larger Lincoln Park.

He said Lincoln Park was much more diverse than King, where the student body is almost entirely African American, which means fewer students at King have had direct exposure to some of the other cultures discussed in class.

“It was some United Nations stuff,” Young said of Lincoln Park.

Young said he hasn’t changed his lessons, but does choose different entry points now. He said lately he has used a Jay-Z lyric about Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as the geographical hub of luxury as jumping off point to talk about the Middle East.

Young said he is lucky to be a teacher at King, where social studies are still a priority.

“With this whole testing push, a lot of schools are scrapping social studies for test prep,” Young said.

He said he still struggles to balance the currently accepted understanding of historical events with the often-outdated versions students are quizzed on for standardized tests.

“I’m not sure a lot of these biases have been erased from the curriculum yet,” Young said.

As Young’s freshmen finished a worksheet, he turned back to begin that day’s round of call and response rhymes drilling nomads, theocracy and democracy.