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    The Portrait

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    Today, the students are learning about rapper Kendrick Lamar. They’re working on a project comparing him to Phillis Wheatley, the 19th-century poet and slave and the namesake of this west Louisville elementary school. The teacher, NyRee Clayton-Taylor, walks around in a relaxed manner, as though she’s in her own living room.

    One kid brings up Chicago, comparing it to Lamar’s hometown of Compton, California, in south Los Angeles. “So Chicago was easier than Compton?” the kid asks Clayton-Taylor.

    “What does Chicago have, the South Side?” she responds.

    “Crazy people, gangs, violence.”

    “And Compton also had what?”

    “Gangs and violence.”

    “So they were both what?”

    “The same.”

    “Yeah, they were kinda the same,” Clayton-Taylor says in a regretful tone.

    Clayton-Taylor, who in May was named Kentucky elementary teacher of the year, teaches creative writing, self-esteem — even history and math — through hip-hop. In her writing lab, colorful posters and collages decorate the walls, featuring figures like the poet Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Obamas — and here’s where the niche becomes known. A handwritten paper on the wall outlines classroom expectations through Migos, a rap trio known for songs like “Bad and Boujee.” It reads: “collaborate, take turns, encourage, family, defend.”

    As the writing lab teacher, Clayton-Taylor has every grade, and her main goal is to instill critical-thinking skills. “We’ll say, ‘How does this affect you?’ No longer are you just comparing Phillis Wheatley and Kendrick Lamar, now you’re comparing Phillis Wheatley, Kendrick Lamar and yourself,” she says. Wheatley wrote her poetry in Old English, “and then when (students) compare it to Kendrick Lamar’s, that’s written in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). To me, that’s the only way they can understand, ‘Oh, I speak AAVE.’”

    Even though Clayton-Taylor grew up in west Louisville, she says it was still a culture shock moving six years ago from Fairdale Elementary to Wheatley Elementary, a school with nearly all students of color. “Whatever’s going on in the community is going to take place in the classroom,” she says. Her students experience poverty, the challenges of which can result in PTSD. “That’s why I have Goldfish (crackers) and snacks around here,” she says. “Just that relationship, knowing what’s going on in the culture.”

    Last year, after the 2Pac biopic All Eyez On Me was released, Clayton-Taylor brought in a book of the late rapper’s poems and did a 2Pac vs. Maya Angelou study, which inspired students to use the 2Pac song title “California Love” for a piece about the California neighborhood in west Louisville: “California community / where’s the love, where’s the unity? / Time to change our reality / shootin’ and killin’ won’t set us free.” Her students have made music videos — with lots of personality and dance moves — and have performed at the Kentucky Center and in the Mayor’s Office, and have gotten to go to the Humanitarian Awards and meet Muhammad Ali’s widow Lonnie. “I love the chaotic-ness to it,” Clayton-Taylor says of her students’ learning. “It’s a beautiful mess.”

    To wrap up class, Clayton-Taylor turns on the Kevin Ross song “Be Great,” signaling cleanup time. The kids sing along and shuffle their papers together. It’s another way to engage the students and not suppress their desires to express themselves creatively. Not long ago on Twitter, she posted a meme of an old-timey wooden desk with the words: “World’s first drum machine.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine as the Portrait. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Jessica Ebelhar,

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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