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Hip Hop as Literacy

Johanna Marion explains how her love and passion for music and rhyming, became a useful tool in the classroom,  igniting the fire for learning and creating memories from everyday lessons.

CanLit Community | By Johanna Marion

Johanna performing at a local event on the Sunshine Coast, BC.


The Hip-Hop as Literacy Project took roots in my mind in the year 2000.  At the time, I was in my final year of Teacher Training at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.  I was experimenting with techniques to assist with memorization, and had taken to re-writing my information from class into rhyming couplets.

For some reason, once I’d organized information this way, my retention of knowledge began to improve.  It’s no wonder, really!  I was raised on nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss stories, and rhyming songs by Children’s  Performers like Raffi, Fred Penner, Charlotte Diamond, and Sharon, Lois and Braham.  It was easy for me to relate to rhyming lyrics, and it was then that I decided to try this concept out in a classroom.  I delivered an entire Math Lesson in rhyme in front of a Grade 5/6 class as part of my final practicum, and they LOVED it.

I was raised on nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss stories, and rhyming songs by Children’s  Performers like Raffi, Fred Penner, Charlotte Diamond, and Sharon, Lois and Braham. 


Years later, in 2018, I was finally able to use some of my ideas about Hip-Hop lyrics with a group of students that I saw on a weekly basis. At West Sechelt Elementary in Sechelt, B.C., I introduced the concept of “Rap as Poetry” with Grades 5-7, and I started to see something incredible happen. Not only were students of this age writing amazing poetry, the boys in the class (traditionally a harder group to reach when teaching poetry) began to really produce poems! We wrote while listening to beats, did poetry performances, made our own (positive) rap videos using Green Screen technology, and began to look at literary devices as ways to increase our power as songwriters.

This year, I had the privilege of being hired as a Part Time Music Teacher at a school in my neighbourhood in Roberts Creek, British Columbia. The principal was open to trying some new ideas for performances and learning instruments, so we started off our year by learning a music production program called GarageBand.  We began making soundtracks for plays, recorded podcasts and instruments, and started with some basic beat production.  I am hoping that sometime in the near future, students will be a part of co-writing a whole album of Hip-Hop Music for Children with me, and will learn about the recording and production process that an artist goes through.

Johanna in the classroom

It is my belief that analyzing and creating Hip-Hop Music with children in the classroom is a way to stay current as an educator, and a way to use language to convey ideas that allows expression of one’s self.  Not only does it give a unique view of studying literary devices and storytelling structures, it gives an opportunity for students to participate in a culture outside their own that they might not have normally been exposed to. The success with this program so far is all due to the interest and engagement of my students, and I believe that our education system is ready for innovative teaching techniques. Hip-Hop can help with literacy, and rap CAN be poetry!

Johanna Marion, B.Ed.

Intermediate Music Teacher, Roberts Creek Elementary




5 Must Read YA Titles This Fall

The Barren Grounds: The Misewa Saga, Book 1 by David Robertson



Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations in an epic middle grade fantasy series from award-winning author David Robertson.

Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home — until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything — including them.

Technically a middle grade novel, the Barren Grounds will interest older students who are already fans of the genre,  or of David Robertson.

Aimed at Ages 10-14.

DAVID A. ROBERTSON is the author of numerous books for young readers including When We Were Alone, which won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and was nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.


One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet by Anuradha Rao


One Earth profiles Black, Indigenous and People of Color who live and work as environmental defenders. Through their individual stories, the book shows that the intersection of environment and ethnicity is an asset to achieving environmental goals. The twenty short biographies introduce readers to diverse activists from all around the world, who are of many ages and ethnicities. From saving ancient trees on the West Coast of Canada, to protecting the Irrawaddy dolphins of India, to uncovering racial inequalities in the food system in the United States, these environmental heroes are celebrated by author and biologist Anuradha Rao, who outlines how they went from being kids who cared about the environment to community leaders in their field. One Earth is full of environmental role models waiting to be found.

One Earth is suitable for ages Ages 13 – 18

ANURADHA RAO is a conservation biologist, writer and facilitator born and raised in the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Mississauga Nations and currently based in unceded Coast Salish territories.



Crossing the Farak River, Michelle Aung Thin


Fourteen-year-old Hasina is forced to flee everything she knows in this gripping account of the crisis in Myanmar.

For Hasina and her younger brother Araf, the constant threat of Sit Tat, the Myanmar Army, is a way of life in Rakhine province—just uttering the name is enough to send chills down their spines. As Rohingyas, they know that when they hear the wop wop wop of their helicopters there is one thing to do—run, and don’t stop. So when soldiers invade their village one night, and Hasina awakes to her aunt’s fearful voice, followed by smoke, and then a scream, run is what they do.

Crossing the Farak River is for ages 12 and up.

MICHELLE AUNG THIN was born in Burma, now Myanmar, in 1962, the year of the military coup, and left with her parents when she was an infant. She grew up in Canada, and now calls Australia home, where she teaches at RMIT University in Melbourne.



You Don’t Have to Die in the End, by Anita Daher


Tough themes are explored with skill in this coming of age story from Anita Daher.

Eugenia Grimm is a tough girl living in a tough town at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She drinks and fights and pushes against expectations. She is also hurting. After her father died by suicide on her eight birthday her older brothers drifted away and her mother up and left when she turned 14.

Eugenia has not made the best choices. After a last-straw violent incident and faced with the possibility of incarceration, she is sentenced to time at an Intensive Support and Supervision Program located at a remote mountain ranch. There, she begins to make connections, explore difficult truths, and might even turn things around-until a series of events pull her into a dark spiral she may not have the strength to resist.

You Don’t Have to Die in the End is for ages 14-18.


ANITA DAHER has been entrenched in the book publishing industry since 1995 writing middle grade and teen novels, including Wonder Horse, Two Foot Punch and Racing for Diamonds. In 2007 she received the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Author. Her most recent novel, Forgetting How to Breathe, was shortlisted for the 2019 IODE Violet Downey Award.


A Song Below Water: A Novel By Bethany C. Morrow



Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water is the story for today’s readers — a captivating modern fantasy about black mermaids, friendship, and self-discovery set against the challenges of today’s racism and sexism.

In a society determined to keep her under lock and key, Tavia must hide her siren powers.

Meanwhile, Effie is fighting her own family struggles, pitted against literal demons from her past. Together, these best friends must navigate through the perils of high school’s junior year.

But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice at the worst possible moment.

Soon, nothing in Portland, Oregon, seems safe. To save themselves from drowning, it’s only Tavia and Effie’s unbreakable sisterhood that proves to be the strongest magic of all.

Song Below Water is suitable for ages 13 – 18


Bethany C. Morrow is the author of the adult novel Mem (Unnamed Press) and the editor of the young adult anthology Take the Mic (Arthur A. Levine Books). A Song Below Water is her debut standalone young adult novel.