by: Lauren Alston
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kyesha Jennings, a professor in English Literature and Composition who uses Hip-Hop as a tool in her teaching. Early this year, Kyesha teamed up with Kelly Goyette, of the Durham Mighty Pen, and was given the opportunity to create her own writing workshop. According to Kyesha, “it was exactly what I was looking for in terms of a volunteer opportunity where I could give my all, as well as, give to my passion at the same time.”
Although she now teaches English and writing to college students, Kyesha’s original career goals did not include teaching. In college as a Journalism major, her plan was to combine her love of Hip-Hop and her love of writing and “write for an entertainment magazine, like ‘The Source’ or ‘Vibe’”, both contemporary examples of the union between Hip-Hop and literature. However, she later changed her major to English Education and planned to teach high school for a couple of years before becoming a principal, letting go of her dream of combining Hip-Hop and writing into a career.
Little did she know that this educational detour would steer her back to her original career goal when her college professor, and current mentor, mentioned that he had a degree in Hip-Hop, discussed his dissertation and research, and gave her a list of books to read. Additionally, Kyesha credits her student teaching experience in which she observed the lack of African-American literature being taught in schools. She also realized she didn’t like the “structure and the politics” and these two factors strengthened her resolve to combine her passions for Hip-Hop and writing, ultimately leading to her current career teaching college students. Kyesha says that in academia, “writing is part of your job, you’re passionate about it, so you want to be able to get your ideas out and contribute to your field of research at the same time….I didn’t realize that I could combine my personal passions with my career until my interactions with my mentor.”
We went on to discuss her specific experiences with Durham Mighty Pen. Kyesha recounts that in her Spring session working with 3rd and 4th graders in a Durham elementary school, she focused on making the activities interactive. She “brought in people who represent the specific elements of Hip-Hop; so a DJ and a b-boy, and the students really gravitated towards that.” Their assignment was to create a music video, and it touched Kyesha’s heart to watch them “take control over their own education” and “be one-hundred percent engaged.” According to Kyesha, writing is one of the most important skills that should be acquired by today’s youth. One of the first things she asks her students is “to think of a career that does not involve writing.” Without this skill, students are unable to express themselves, and in this day, effective self-expression is becoming more important than ever to survive and advance. Writing is critical, as it allows students “to learn about themselves, reflect on who they are, figure out what they want to do, [and] how they want to contribute to society.”
Not only did Durham Mighty Pen give children the opportunity to learn from a college educator like Kyesha Jennings, but she learned from them as well. Kyesha says that the opportunity to work with young kids taught her patience and attention to detail, as well as encouraged her to think outside the box, but the biggest effect, she sees is that “it took [her] outside of her comfort zone”, which created an opportunity for personal growth and increased creativity.
Durham Mighty Pen is constantly working towards their mission of “affirming and amplifying the voices of Durham’s K-12 youth through creative writing-based workshops, tutoring, and publishing.” With the help of Kyesha Jennings, and so many others, they are reaching their goal and leaving an impact on Durham’s children.
Lauren Alston is a vivacious rising senior at Chapel Hill High School who’s curiosity and perseverance led her to cross the distance, physical and social from to Durham to Chapel Hill before she was even old enough to drive. She has written about Girls Rock, the Carrack’s Community Show, Saltbox Seafood, and most recently Truth to Power IV at the Pleiades.