• The Hip Hop Counselor...

    Hip Hop 101 is now in full swing.  My students just completed their first major assessment task - presenting in groups one of the 4 elements of Hip Hop.  This assignment was a big challenge for students born in the 2000s who have no historical or cultural context of Hip Hop's roots.  For the first few weeks of the class, it was about establishing that foundation.  They learned about the Bronx, Kool Herc, the impact of poverty/redlining/racism, etc. that created this cultural phenomenon known as Hip Hop. As we started to dabble with aesthetics - I felt it would be more interesting that they did their own research on the 4 Elements.  The presentations were a little rough around the edges, but I can see signs of connections they are making to past and present - what it looked/sounded like. So, when my friends Ceci and Nathan approached the SIS staff about joining the 8th grade Humanities classes in their "This, I believe" participation was without doubt and what I wanted to share came quite naturally.

    It had to be about a huge part of my identity and my own experience as a middle schooler. It had to be about Hip Hop.

    My Audio

    2017 SIS This, I believe Podcasts


    When I was 12, my cousin Ryan’s bedroom was my first dance club.  There, we taped live DJ mixes off of the radio and he tried to teach ME - a goofy 7th grader with two left feet, the latest dance moves.  I was a quick study on the Roger Rabbit, Running Man, Cabbage Patch, the Wop - but the Walk was my kryptonite.  Every day after our homework was finished - Ryan dutifully brought out the boombox and showed me how to do it.  I could NEVER. GET IT. RIGHT.  My arms were always ahead of my feet or vice-versa.  In hindsight getting that dance move down seems so frivolous, but to my 12 year-old self - it was everything. 

    See music has always been an important part of my existence.  I can associate every family party, school activity, and life drama to a song, singer, or genre.  Dancing and listening to Hip Hop and R&B was common ground for my cousins, friends, and me.  We could have very different interests - but this is how we bonded.  Not getting that move down meant the difference between being cool or not. I had to be able to do it, especially when my younger sister got it before I did. And so when I finally got that dance move right, I was walking on Cloud 9.  It was an important milestone for a middle schooler aiming to be like her cooler, older cousins. 

    While dance lessons took over many afternoons, the primary driver of that bonding time was Hip Hop culture and its aesthetics: the fashion, the dance moves, the artwork, the message, etc.  We looked at clothes, dissected lyrics, and we even started looking at politics - at least as much as our pre-teen and teenage selves could possibly understand. As a child of Filipino immigrants who grew up in a middle-class, predominately white California suburb, Hip Hop music helped me explore why many times I felt different from my classmates.  Through the rhymes layered over sampled beats,  I learned about the experience of Black and brown people in the United States that wasn’t covered in my public school history books.  I started reading Malcolm X and Maya Angelou - attempting to process their words on identity, community, revolution, and social justice.  In turn, I was inspired to start exploring my own background and what it was like to be a Filipino growing up in the United States.  For me, Hip Hop wasn’t just beats making me bob my head or move my feet, the words got me to think and brought me to different worlds and told stories that weren’t always within my immediate reach.  Each group or emcee told tales about love, life, friendships, the inner city, growing up poor, or womanhood - to name just a few topics.  The music that backed those stories was often sampled from Hip Hop’s predecessors and it broadened my interest in soul music.  Underneath those rhymes is the funk of James Brown, sax of Tom Scott and John Coltrane, or keys of Ronnie Foster and so many other music greats who preceded the Hip Hop generation.  I was hooked and never let go.

    25 years since those after school dance lessons, I don’t do those dance moves as much any more unless I’m at a 90s theme party or family reunion, but my belief in the power that music has to transform, heal, and express deep and hidden feelings remains strong and unyielding.  I see it in my students’ eyes as they talk about their favorite artists and debate the importance of which songs are played at the middle school dances.  I see it amongst my friends, loved ones, and colleagues as we discuss our favorite musicians and how we use music to cope with the world’s current events.  I see how it helped an awkward, precocious 12 year old find her rhythm and voice through the emcees and singers she idolized; building connections to the world beyond her cozy, suburban hometown.  Music can mean many things to different people and to me, music is life.  This, I believe.

  • #NoPassionLeftBehind

    #sishiphop101 gets a taste of The Big Payback by James Brown #hiphopeducation #sisrocks #passion

    — Yvette Cuenco (@YvetteCuencoSC) January 19, 2017 

    Shortly before Winter Break, my assistant principal approached me about teaching electives in Semester 2. Not only did this opportunity give me a chance to have more face time with my students, but it also gave me the challenge of figuring out WHAT I was going to teach and HOW I was going to do it. Within about an hour after that conversation, I asked to run something by her. I decided I wanted to teach an elective on Hip Hop - but it won't just be about performance, it will give the students a foundation of where Hip Hop began and explore how it got to where it is now.  I got the greenlight.

    Begin panic.

    "Will they like it?" "How am I going to make this interesting for middle schoolers?" "I don't want to sound like I'm preaching." "I don't want to sound...OLD." 

    For the first time in quite a long time, I was nervous.  So how did I respond? I talked to my colleagues and I watched/read the news.  My colleagues seemed more excited about the Hip Hop class than the students. Through my conversations with them, my creative juices of what I will teach and how started flowing. Ideas of beat making, annotating rap lyrics, etc. all started to turn my anxiety to excitement. Watching/reading the news (particularly news from the United States) fueled my inspiration for the students to explore how external factors such as poverty, racism, disenfranchisement can manifest into a whole culture known as Hip Hop.

    @YvetteCuencoSC sharing her passion and spinning talents in her History of #HipHop class! Ss are loving it! #SISrocks #nopassionleftbehind

    — Carlos Galvez (@clos_gm) January 25, 2017

    My goals became quite clear:

    1. Exploring the foundations of Hip Hop gives them cultural context of not just the music, but also the sociopolitical factors that resulted in the artform.
    2. Learning by doing makes it FUN and complements our inquiry-based curriculum. We were going to explore the 4 Elements of Hip Hop Culture: MCing, Grafitti, DJing, and Bboying through experimentation and research.
    3. Lastly, outside of teaching/counseling - music is a passion of mine and Hip Hop culture is a huge part of who I am. This class is a great opportunity to model for my students how to take something your passionate about and challenge yourself to use it in different ways.

    We've only just finished the 2nd week of electives and already as my students and I warm up to each other, my pre-class jitters are slowly starting to go away.  When you let the internal mind chatter quiet down and you look at what's right in front of you, you will often see that "the work" isn't so difficult after all.

  • Fall Break: Tokyo, Japan! Part II

    Getting Around

    Narita and Haneda International Airports will likely be your landing/departure points. Narita is about 1.5 hours away from Shibuya, while Haneda is just 30 minutes.  A prime example of how expensive Japan can be is in the cost to get to/from the airport in a taxi.  One-way trip from Haneda is roughly 7600 yen ($76USD) and from Narita, a whopping 20000 yen ($200USD)!  However, the workaround to this is pretty simple.  If you land during regular hours of the Tokyo metro - you can take the train from Narita or Haneda into all parts of the city.  Another more affordable option are the limousine busses and these run late night/early morning to/from the airports to hubs around Tokyo.  I landed late at Haneda and the last bus had already departed, so I took a taxi. I had our AirBnB address printed out in Japanese so it was quite easy for the driver to map it on his GPS.  (Note: all Tokyo cabs are equipped with GPS and credit card machines.)  But on the way back to Haneda, I had an early morning flight. From our AirBnB, I grabbed a taxi to Shibuya Station West entrance where the limousine bus stops.  It only cost me 2060 yen ($20.60USD) to take the bus. The driver accepts cash and provides change.

    Once you get past the enormity of the Tokyo metro system, it really is not difficult to figure out. Maps/kiosks/etc. can be set to English.  A good friend of ours who lives in Tokyo showed us how to buy Suico cards. These are cards that you top up and make it much faster to get in/out of the metro vs. having to get an individual ticket each time.


    Have the cost of taxis left you in shock? Don't worry - while Japan isn't dirt cheap like Southeast Asia, it is still fairly reasonable.  The exchange rate is 100 yen = $1USD and 1000 yen ($10USD) can get you a filling, affordable and tasty meal in Shibuya. We stuck to mostly local food - ramen and sushi kaiten with stops at cafes, etc.  To really get the most out of your $, stay at an AirBnB.  What I enjoyed about our AirBnB in Tokyo is that it was in the residential side of Shibuya and we got to see a glimpse of local life. It was neat to be inside a Tokyo apartment and realise how much they can pack into a tiny space. Furthermore, most AirBnBs in Tokyo come with a portable wi-fi hotspot which makes navigating the city much easier.


    While all the major international brands can be found in Tokyo - I enjoyed checking out the local Muji, Kinokuniya, and Tower Records. If you're a fan of music, the Shibuya Tower Records is 6 floors of bliss. My favorite floor was the Soul Floor where every possible Soul/Hip Hop/R&B artist  you could possibly think of can be found along with rare releases, mixes, etc. that are only available in Japan.  I was also turned onto local R&B artist - Nao Yoshioka - when they played her album over their PA system. Dedicate at least an afternoon to browse. They have a cafe if you need a break.

    In conclusion, there's so much to see in Tokyo - that my 5 days was just the tip of the iceberg. I cannot wait until I go back and I feel like it will happen sooner than later.