YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Hip-Hop Unlocks the Meaning of Literary Classics

An English teacher gets a powerful response when he demystifies the world of Shakespeare for students.

June 19, 2005|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

A visitor wandering into Alan Sitomer's English literature class at Lynwood High School could be forgiven for wondering when Elmore Leonard became required reading for 10th graders.

In the course of leading a lively discussion about a work of fiction, Sitomer described one character as a whore and another as a gold-digger. One's a hanger-on, the type who'd take advantage of his best friend, the rap star. And then there's the "regular dude," a guy who just "wants things to be good in his 'hood."

But the work of fiction is "Hamlet"; the characters are Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius and Horatio. And the students -- teens whose prior view of Shakespeare could reasonably be summed up as "boring dead white guy, impossible to understand" -- are deep into the text.

"Who's got the power, Anthony?" Sitomer demands of a student who has a bit of swagger to go with his shaved head. "When Mom's not around, who gets the remote control?"

The older brother gets it, Anthony replies. That's Hamlet's father, the king, giving his younger brother, Claudius, good reason to want him dead.

And Anthony, a younger brother, gets it too.

For Sitomer, 38, who grew up in New York and Florida and has a touch of street in his step, teaching literature is all about building bridges that allow his students to understand that great literature is not just a window into the past but a mirror illuminating their own lives.

"Kids would rather go to the dentist than read Shakespeare," he said during a stroll through his school's well-tended, bunker-like campus, which closed for the semester Friday. "But if you turn on that internal light, make it relevant and contemporary ... you can see how passionately they get involved. When you use examples from their own lives, that's when it's living literature."

Jose Urias, Lynwood's principal, credits Sitomer with helping to improve academic performance at the school. He said 99% of Sitomer's students pass the English portion of the California high school exit exam. "He exemplifies what a good teacher is," Urias said. "It's just a whole new perspective that he's able to share with the kids and with all of us."

Since starting at Lynwood High six years ago, Sitomer has juggled teaching with writing. He recently published his second book, "The Hoopster," a coming-of-age novel for teens about a high school student who lives in an inner-city neighborhood and grapples with real-world issues that include racism, violence and basketball.

The book struck a chord with Sitomer's students, who are nearly all Latino or black, mostly poor and acquainted with violence and crime.

"I read it in one day," said Vicky Trinidad, a slender, animated girl with a dark brown ponytail.

His first book, "Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics," was a guide for teachers who want to draw connections, as Sitomer does, between hip-hop lyrics and the work of such poets as Keats, Tennyson, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.

He puts Dylan Thomas -- "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" -- up against Tupac Shakur:

"The question I wonder is, after death, after my last breath

When will I finally get to rest?"

"It's demystifying the world of poetry for teenagers," said Sitomer, known as "Mr. Alan" to students. "Making connections. Keeping it relevant."

To teach "Hamlet," Sitomer began with an exercise. He told the students, who are mostly 15 and 16, to take out a piece of paper and write their mother's name, father's name and the name of an uncle. Now, he continued, cross out your father's name, because he died three weeks ago, and your uncle is sleeping with your mother.

"They're like, 'Oh, my God!' " Sitomer said.

He then had them write about how they felt. "The next morning, some of them were still mad at their moms," he recalled, chuckling.

With that close-to-the-bone prologue, they tackled "Hamlet."

"I thought I wouldn't understand it at all," Yahaira Moreno said, "but I'm really liking it."

"We can connect to the text," Vicky added, "because he's explaining it in vocabulary we understand."

Amir Ali, a junior who had Sitomer's class last year, said his favorite book was "definitely 'Hamlet.' " Before, he had viewed Shakespeare as "artsy-fartsy, not really a hip thing to study." His view now? Definitely hip.

"I don't think I would have liked it if I didn't have Mr. Alan guiding me," he added. "Shakespeare isn't exactly popular among my generation."

Sitomer went to Lynwood after a fill-in stint at New Roads, a private school in Santa Monica. David Bryan, the head of the school, remembers him as "certainly competent, but ... didn't stand out in any way."

Sitomer took away an appreciation for the advantages of a private school; he had one class with only 11 students, he said, and his classes at Lynwood sometimes have more than 40.

But he doesn't believe his students at Lynwood are fundamentally different. "Internally, they're the same," he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles