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Volume 51, Number 8   October 6, 2003         

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People on Campus

Jamal Cooks -- Hip-hop and writing
As a teen-ager growing up in Oakland in the late 1980s, Jamal Cooks was a standout on the track and football teams at Skyline High School. He listened to rap, hung out with friends and all the while had his eyes set on becoming CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Business, he thought, now that's where it's at.

The only child of a career military father and an Avon sales representative, Cooks was accepted to several colleges across the country but ended up in next door at University of California, Berkeley. He majored in political economy of industrial societies and took any class involving economics, statistics, political science and business.

Teaching never entered his mind until the summer before his sophomore year when he needed money and took a job tutoring inner city fourth- through sixth-graders in science. Never mind that he knew little about teaching or science.

When he was asked to consider a full-time teaching job, Cooks thanked the vice principal but stated clearly, "I'm not going into teaching. I'm going to make money."

Yet after a few more years working with kids he couldn't deny that he was hooked. He wanted to teach.

"When I told my mom I wanted to be a teacher she looked at me and said, 'What?'" recalls Cooks, who arrived at the University in 2002 as an assistant professor in the Secondary Education Department. "But I like being in control of a classroom and I really like helping kids."

So he set aside dreams of making a lot of money, earned a teaching credential and taught social studies at Oakland's King Estates Junior High School. During the first month of school one of his students got pregnant, three students came to school drunk and one girl showed up to class high on drugs.

"After that first year with the wide range of academic abilities and the number of family problems, I felt like I could teach anywhere," he said.

And while he loved teaching the 150 students he saw each day, he had ambitions of making a greater impact in education. "I wanted to sit at the table and make decisions about how to educate young people," he said. "I wanted to improve education in the communities where I came from."

He headed to University of Michigan and began a doctorate in language, literacy and culture. He quickly realized that sports, music and popular culture are the main interests of students and that those subjects impact writing and learning.

"When is the last time you were around a teen-ager and had an in-depth conversation? I bet in seven out of 10 cases popular culture, sports and hip-hop will be talked about," said Cooks, who counts rappers Eminem, Jay-Z, Eve, Dr. Dre and Freeway among his favorites. "It's so pervasive across race, class and gender. Teens wear it on their clothing. It drives our popular culture."

Today, the 31-year-old instructs his soon-to-be high school teachers how to effectively use rap, hip-hop and sports in the classroom. He compares rap lyrics to classic poems, pointing out metaphors and similes used in song and the written word. He asks students to use rap as a pre-writing activity to essays.

He's also conducting research on how coaching and mentoring students serve as excellent guides to teaching. And he puts his theory into practice. Several afternoons a week he's on the field back at Skyline serving as a track coach.

Judith Blomberg, a colleague in the Secondary Education Department, calls Cooks a role model, especially for students who never considered college.

"I am tremendously impressed by his intellect and passion for his students as a high school teacher and subsequently as a researcher in education. Last year he invited a group of five students from Skyline to SFSU to see the campus and to apply for admission. Four applied and four were admitted with his guidance. These are students who are first in their generation to attend college," she said. "Dr. Cooks is contributing important 'real world' curriculum to our program that will ultimately motivate and inspire those students who are underrepresented in our educational community."

While teaching and research afford him little time to hang out with his old school buddies, he manages to keep in touch.

"I'm proud of maintaining those relationships," said Cooks, who lives with his wife, Charemon, in Oakland. "Ph.D. or not, it's important not to forget where you're from."

-- Christina Holmes

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Last modified October 6, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs