Troubled students make rap CD

San Francisco school officials spent $50,000 to produce a hip-hop CD “with so much profanity it requires a parental advisory label,” reports the San Francisco Chronicle. And they’re proud of it.

The music and lyrics were created by 12 of the district’s court school kids – students who broke the law and now, on probation and under a judge’s order, attend class in rundown portables on the west side of the city.

Superintendent Carlos Garcia wanted a “transformational” project for students who often don’t bother to show up at school. During the summer, the students worked with poet and hip-hop artist Bryonn Bain, theater director Mei-Ann Teo and record producer Cava Menzies. Local, state and federal funds — including arts grants and Title I money — paid the costs.

“It was difficult to gain their trust and censor them at the same time,” Bain said. “So we opted not to censor them.”

The district hired filmmakers to make a documentary about the project. The CD, “All of Us,” is on sale for $10; students may earn up to $100 from initial sales.

The superintendent wants to replicate the project in other schools at a lower cost. California is broke and funding cuts are expected.

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  1. “During the summer, the students worked with poet and hip-hop artist Bryonn Bain, theater director Mei-Ann Teo and record producer Cava Menzies.”

    This is all backwards.

    This should be the reward offered to the kids that DO show up for school and make good grades.

  2. Mrs. Lopez says:

    Another reason why I loathe big government. They spend our hard-earned money on foolish things that are offensive to most of us.

  3. Carlos Garcia is the same moronic fool who ran the Clark County School District (NV) for a few years. He left it to join a private company where he wouldn’t be required to disclose his salary, I guess the private sector wasn’t to his liking so he should fit right in via S.F.

  4. Robert Wright says:

    The fact that there is profanity, and a lot of it, doesn’t undermine the value of the project.

    The youth poetry slam in San Jose, which includes students from Downtown College Prep, also doesn’t impose restrictions. I’ve attended a few and the high level of some of the poetry is impressive.

    This project sounds unconventional but so were the teaching methods in the book Freedom Riders.

    I’m not familiar with this particular project but I have a feeling it was time and money well spent.

  5. Robert Wright says:

    I meant “Freedom Writers.”

    The last thing you want to do with children, especially troubled ones, is censor them.

    Foul language is a symptom, not a problem. Point to it as a problem and you just make matters worse.

    Troubled children typically respond to their surroundings with violence and profanity because they haven’t had the experience of being listened to.

    Allow troubled students to direct profanity into a mic and you’ll hear less of it directed to each other.

    That might sound crazy, but that’s how it works.

  6. So, which California standards that can be tested were addressed in the making of the CD? Or is making the CD going to suddenly make them buckle down and do all of their math homework?

    I get that making a CD is a fun activity, but is it any more useful than the oft-ridiculed make-a-poster type activity?

  7. “Troubled children typically respond to their surroundings with violence and profanity because they haven’t had the experience of being listened to.”

    I would not put myself forward as an expert on troubled children, so forgive my ignorance. This sort of sounds like making excuses for violent children. They weren’t listened to, so they couldn’t help but be driven to profanity and violence? And the last thing we should do is tell them not to do that (censor them)?

    What is it that they have to say that is so cruelly being ignored? Who should be listening? And does it really cost $50,000 to listen? To 12 kids? For two weeks?

    If I take kids on a field trip to a museum, few, if any, of them are going to grow up to be great painters. However, it may be the case that several of them will visit museums later in life, and be generally more culturally enriched. Visiting a museum is an experience that, for any inspired kid, can be re-experienced over and over the rest of their lives. And many, many more kids can be reached for much, much less money.

    What return are we getting for our money, other than some happy memories for a dozen kids?

    But what do I know? Maybe it’ll even make a profit.

  8. Robert Wright says:

    Keep in mind that these students are in court schools. They’re not able to function in regular schools–or even alternative schools. The only other place for them would probably be prison. Prisons are more expensive and there’s a lot more profanity.

    But allow me to backtrack a bit. $50,000 sounds excessive for this project.

    You don’t need ProTools to mix audio and make a CD. And you certainly don’t need four copies. There are public domain programs that do the job. Audacity is one.

    You need a computer, but computers are everywhere.

    You need a mic and that might cost $150. A digital recorder? Well, maybe.

    The entire project of producing a CD should cost less than $2000. If you cut a few corners, perhaps $500.

    Maybe a lot of the money went to pay the poet Bryonn Bain. He’s a very talented individual and I’m sure did a great job with these students.

    It sounds like they had $50,000 to burn. I think they spent it on a good project, but without paying somebody like Bain, it could have been done for a fraction of the cost.

  9. Foul language is a symptom, not a problem. Point to it as a problem and you just make matters worse.

    So how does that translate into classroom management? Should I not expect clean language in class in order not to make matters worse?

  10. Robert Wright says:

    Jay, I have to agree with you. This sounds like much too much money thrown their way.

    But though I’m not an expert, I have experience working with troubled students and I can tell you that it’s pointless to tell any child to “Use your words,” if you expect him to simply talk to himself.

  11. Robert Wright says:


    Good question.

    You should not only expect clean language in class, but you should demand it, which I imagine you do. I know that I certainly do.

    When students use foul language in class, it means they don’t know how to behave. We need to teach them how to behave.

    And to teach them how to behave, we need to teach them what bad language is. They use it, but they don’t know what it is.

    The words themselves are not bad. And if they’re ever going to abandon their use they need to know that.

    To say that foul language is bad is like saying that fire is bad. It all depends on how, where and why you use it. It’s all about context.

    During a classroom discussion, foul language is not appropriate. When asking a customer if he’d like fries with his order, foul language is not appropriate. But when reading or writing poetry, that’s another matter.

    None of my student think there’s anything wrong with wearing tennis shoes. But none of them plan to wear tennis shoes at their own wedding. That would be bad. They understand context. And they need to understand it when it comes to language.

    When they understand language better, they’ll have power over it. Foul language has taken hold of many of my students as a lazy habit, a substitute for words with meaning, a place holder for thought. Once they understand better what foul language actually is, they’ll be more inclined to let it go. And they’re not going to understand what foul language is if it’s reinforced that bad words are by themselves inherently bad.

    I have ten signs posted in my classroom above the chalkboard. One of them says, “Talk nice.”

    Why? Because it’s important. And children don’t become civilized by themselves. We, as adults, must hold them to high standards.

    If we treat foul language as something that it’s not, our students will be lass equipped to abandon its inappropriate, destructive use.

  12. This story isn’t about temporarily overlooking bad language while trying to build a more powerful conversation.

    It’s about endorsing and promoting bad language–not really accepting the categories “good” and “bad.”

  13. Robert Wright says:

    Nobody is asking anybody to overlook anything.

    The bad language was in the context of poetry which means it’s not bad.

    Neither are the tennis shoes I happen to be wearing as I type this.

  14. Is it just me or am I the only one who tires of excusing bad behavior and/or rewarding bad behavior? Does that mean we don’t use unconventional methods to reach at risk kids? No. But at some point, sanity needs to kick in and we need to expect a certain level of behavior. The use of bad language reflects a lack of vocabulary and a lack of the necessary tools to express oneself in an appropriate manner. So then, let’s give them the tools.

    Also, what ever happened to considering one’s audience? Since the product was created in a public school setting with tax payer money, then certain standards should automatically apply. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Is it then OK to use those words in the classroom? the school newspaper? the school yearbook? Does the San Francisco Chronicle use those same words on its pages?Is it OK for a teacher to use those same words in a classroom in order to attempt to “reach out” to those struggling kids? I would think not.

    Again, I grow tired of excusing bad behavior instead of trying to elevate kids and giving children a glimpse of what they could be.

  15. Mrs. Lopez says:

    “Foul language has taken hold of many of my students as a lazy habit, a substitute for words with meaning, a place holder for thought.”

    Bingo. Yet another reason why a school project should not allow profanity.

  16. Mrs. Davis says:

    I’m working on a poem for you , Robert.

  17. Robert Wright says:

    Bellringers, bad behavior should not be excused but writing and recording poetry with profanity is not bad behavior. Poetry is only bad when it’s from books by Rod McKuen.

    Mrs. Lopez, allowing student to use profanity in their poetry does not promote its use in other settings. In fact, it will serve to decrease its use.

    A few years ago when I was teaching a unit on poetry, one of my administrators told me to tell my students that they could only write on joyful topics like flowers and springtime.

    Why? Because one of my students revealed in her poetry that she was being sexually abused by her uncle. Another teacher found the poem, turned it in to the principal and he had to contact Child Protective Services. They came down to school, interviewed her, and took her away. The parents came to school and met with the principal to complain that we were interfering with their home life. All of this took time and energy away from the other work my principal had to do. And it was all because I told my students to write about whatever they wanted.

    So, after that, they had to write about flowers and springtime.

    True, you could tell these students in San Francisco to write about their personal lives without using profanity, but I think you’d have as much success with that as telling them to copy a page out of the dictionary.

  18. Ah Robert,

    Forgive the paraphrasing of Shakespeare, but me thinks thou doth protest too much…

    …and I think thou doth not give students enough credit. Trust me, they will write about their personal lives without using profanity. One or two may still use it, but I think there’s quite a difference between school-sponsored and school-funded profanity (which is what that CD sounds like) and personal journal writing.

    and btw, I think your administrator was very, very wrong, but I also think it’s rather a stretch to juxtaposition that incident on top of the CD one.

    It looks like we’ll just have to respectfully agree to disagree.

  19. Robert Wright says:

    Bellringers, hmmm.

    Actually, I like Shakespeare. I even tolerate his profanity, of which there’s a great deal.

    Perhaps I’ve written so much about this because I’ve been heavily involved with poetry, spoken word / slam poetry events, and at-risk students for a number of years and as a consequence, I’ve formed more than just casual opinions on the subject.

    It’s an especially nice experience when a troubled student doesn’t use profanity when he knows he can if he wants to. That’s a real milestone, and it’s not something that’s seen when there are restrictions.

    Unrestricted school sponsored poetry slams are fairly common throughout the Bay Area. I guess the violation of the profanity taboo is more of an issue when the profanity is written or recorded.

    I’m puzzled why people think profanity still is taboo when it’s in poetry. Would these people also think that unabridged dictionaries have no place in a high school library?

    Yes, I respectfully disagree with you.

    But I must confess, more than anything else, I’m puzzled.

  20. I’m puzzled why people think profanity still is taboo when it’s in poetry.

    Robert, Robert, Robert.

    This argument sounds a little puerile, no? A lot of things occur in literature that should not be condoned, and any nimrod with a pen and paper can write what he thinks is poetry. I think we should distinguish between gratuitous profanity and profanity that legitimately adds to character development or the narrative or some other aspect of the work, e.g., the use of it by the narrator in The Catcher in the Rye, which I use with my junior classes. Personally, I don’t think high school kids are mature enough to use profanity artistically rather than just for shock effect, and in that case I don’t want to encourage its use.

  21. Robert Wright says:

    BadaBing, yes, students will use profanity for shock value.

    But after it’s allowed, the shock wears off and they use it for other reasons.

    I’m glad you’re teaching The Catcher in the Rye. When I first started teaching, just having that book in the classroom would have been grounds for dismissal.

    (By the way, have you ever used the text “If You Really Want To Hear About It” as a secondary source? I’m a contributing author, believe it or not, which you don’t have to believe at all since I used a pseudonym.)

    I agree with you that high school students aren’t mature enough to use profanity artistically, yet when given the freedom to use profanity, they sometimes produce poetry that turns out to be quite good.

  22. Robert – what’s the point of profanity if it isn’t shocking? What other purpose is it to be used for?

    If my life is really terrible at a particular time (an example that springs to mind is when I dropped my crutches on my *good* foot), only language that is shocking is suitable to express my outraged feelings.

    Okay, sometimes a writer may choose cold-bloodedly to write words for a character that is personally going through something that feels like dropping the crutches on the good foot. And academic study of language should not be precluded from considering profanity unemotionally. But generally I think it is wise to discourage the use of profanity in order to maintain its shock value for those times when we really need it.

  23. Robert Wright says:

    In my life I don’t use profanity and I dislike it and I discourage its use.

    I won’t even watch cable TV.

    But when it comes to poetry, I won’t tell a poet what words to use or not use. It’s not by business. Otherwise, it’s not the poet’s poem.

    Profanity doesn’t make for particularly good poetry, but I think that’s a discovery the student has to make.

  24. “Robert – what’s the point of profanity if it isn’t shocking? What other purpose is it to be used for?”

    I hear this argument a lot, and honestly I think this is a very simplistic view of cursing when it comes to language and discourse.

    Words are not inherently bad. A lot of kids grow up hearing curse words in everyday discourse. Therefore, such words are not meant to be shocking. It’s just another word.

  25. Fred the Fourth says:

    Robert Wright says: “It sounds like they had $50,000 to burn.”

    Look, hardly anyone will argue that kids in the court schools are going to be difficult cases, and are likely to use difficult language, especially in the context given.
    What frosts my ass is the idea that anyone thinks they “had” this money to burn. That money (probably, assuming it was not a donation) had to be pried out of the hands of the workers who earned it in the first place, with the expenditure of a bunch of political capital. You better believe that I think resources like that had better be used carefully.

  26. I hear this argument a lot, and honestly I think this is a very simplistic view of cursing when it comes to language and discourse. Words are not inherently bad. A lot of kids grow up hearing curse words in everyday discourse. Therefore, such words are not meant to be shocking.

    Robert, I suggest that when you criticise an argument for being very simplistic, it’s wise to introduce some complexity in your answer.

    Words are of course not inherently bad. Spelling things out, a language is an arbitrary set of associations between sounds and meanings we wish to convey. Sometimes the meaning we wish to convey is “insert tab A into slot B”, sometimes it’s “Get out of the building, there’s a fire!”, sometimes it’s “the universe sucks and I feel very miserable about it”. There is a lot of arbitrariness about which words get assigned to which purpose – as shown by the number of languages in which people manage to get through life quite productively. But within a languqage, those words have meaning – and if they are used without an understanding of that meaning, those meanings change. If you keep yelling “Fire!” when there is no fire, eventually people are going to learn that there is no association between you yelling “Fire!” and any actual fire. This will create a problem for you if there is actually a fire. I agree entirely that there’s nothing inherent about the sound “Fire!” that in English that means it refers to a dangerous situation, but it is very simplistic to stop your analysis of English meaning at that point and conclude that it doesn’t matter in which situation you yell “Fire!”.

    Similarily, there is nothing inherently bad about the sounds that make up swear words, but it is very simplistic to stop your analysis of meaning at that point. If people use profanity so much that it is no longer shocking, they are going to have a problem when they really want to be shocking – they are starting to turn profane words into ordinary words and thus to lose their profanity, just as yelling “Fire!” when there is no fire eventually means the word is no longer a danger signal. (They are also creating a problem for the rest of us when we want to swear). Also, before you again falsely accuse me of being very simplistic, I had better spell out that I am well aware that different dialects of English have different meanings for similar words – eg the movie title “Free Willy” prompted a lot of amusement in NZ, the cleanest joke I heard was “it’s a movie about boxer shorts”. Part of the study of English should be teach kids about how words are interpreted by different speakers of English, and in partiuclar, teaching that some words that are in common use in their dialect will likely be regarded by potential employers, courts, etc as profanity and thus shocking. Just as you would teach a person learning English that the word “Fire!” is normally to be used when combustion of a substance with oxygen is occurring, and not when trying to attract a stanger’s attention.

    So, Robert, going back to my original question, what other uses do you see for profanity, if it’s not for the shock value?

  27. Soapbox Diva says:

    To my shock, I am going to have to agree with Robert on this subject. The idea was to not censor, so whatever came out is what came out. The idea was freedom of speech. This appeared
    to be a hard core group and part of the goal is to keep them out of prison. It varies by state, but the first year of prison for one person is more than the entire cost of even this overblown project. I deal with the homeless and recent released from prison population and they have moved way beyond the shock stage of language and foul language has lost its value, but often is the norm.

  28. Robert Wright says:


    If you reread the posts above you will see that it wasn’t me who wrote the words you are responding to.