Michael Doggett always knew he’d be a teacher, like his mom and grandmother. But it was during his pre-pandemic stint at a Maryland middle school that he discovered his true teaching talent: hip-hop.
“My fellow teachers and I were a diverse group, and we were committed to changing a system we knew firsthand was rooted in systemic racism,” Doggett says. After seeing that many students of color had trouble expressing themselves in class, Doggett started a hip-hop-based elective course called Hip Hop Empower Hour, in which students could analyze music, then write and perform their own. The course helped them feel they had both a voice that deserved to be heard and a place to use it. “Seeing that I was able to change this broken system in a small way was empowering,” Doggett says. Kids recorded flows about everything from Chipotle’s burritos to being late for class. In advance of the rap showcase each year, the tracks were played over the intercom so the whole school could sing along.
Then the pandemic hit, and just like that, the burgeoning rappers lost their outlet. Via Zoom one day, Doggett performed a rap for his students to assess how they were feeling in isolation: “Hey students / What you been doin’? / How many pairs of pj’s have you ruined?” They loved it. It occurred to Doggett that it need not be a one-off; it could help him and the Empower Hour kids stay connected. The Hey Students raps continued, Hip Hop Empower Hour was reborn virtually, and in May, after Chance the Rapper heard about Doggett’s doings, he gave him a $30,000 prize during his Teacher Appreciation Week awards.
The raps kept Doggett’s students engaged with schoolwork—and him. “I had missed the daily interactions so much, and worried they would become difficult during distance learning,” he says. “But I made lifelong memories with many of my students during that time. It was an experience I don’t think any of us will forget.”
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “The Kindness Hall of Fame.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.