For New York City kids, “Bodak Yellow” by Bronx rapper Cardi B was without question the song of the summer. When the kids came back to school in the fall, educator Erica Buddington noticed them singing the catchy but profanity-laden hit in her classroom. Buddington seized on the teaching moment.
— Erica B. (@ericabuddington) August 25, 2017
She went home that night, rewrote the words as a geography lesson, and printed out the lyrics as a homework sheet. When she performed the song the next day in class, the video went viral (including mentions on Refinery29, Huffington Post, and Forbes), but more importantly, Buddington says her students retained what they learned.
“When you’re teaching sixth graders that are six levels behind, you need more than just rigor for them to latch,” she says. “They are so bright-eyed whenever they see something they recognize and can latch onto it.”
Buddington prides herself on creating a culturally relevant curriculum, an approach that incorporates children’s interests, learning style, and background into how material is introduced and taught. Wanting to help more educators steer away from rigid scripts, Buddington founded the Langston League, a team of educational experts who develop curriculum and train facilitators. The Langston League received a bump in recognition after Buddington’s video and a recent win at the NYC Creator Awards.
“The kids push me to be creative. They’re my lab,” she says. “I take the kids’ comments every day and rework it. They’re so open when they know you love them.”
“The kids push me to be creative. They’re my lab.”
Buddington, a longtime devotee of Langston Hughes (“My mom used to read his poetry to me in the womb”), used to make frequent visits to the poet’s Harlem home on 127th Street, which was nearby her old workplace, the Harlem Children’s Zone.
“I used to have lunch on the steps there every day, trying to soak up some of his energy,” she says.
On one of these lunchtime visits, Buddington learned that Hughes had wanted ivy to grow on his brownstone, a way to signal that this was the home of a poet. No other home had ivy and the shaded area wasn’t a good fit for the plant. Nevertheless, Hughes got the ivy to grow and it continues to cover his home today. Buddington felt the zing of inspiration.
“That ivy was not supposed to grow in that part of Harlem,” Buddington says. “This is a metaphor—for some kids! The ivy will rise to the sun.”
Building the league
Right now, the Langston League is in the first phases of an app that would deliver educational content based on an assessment of the child’s learning style. Buddington wants to hire a part-time employee to help move it forward, and the $18,000 she received at the Creator Awards will help her do that.
But even as she moves the Langston League forward, Buddington remains devoted to her students, her scholars. She says everyone around her knows one thing: “Erica is not available until 6 p.m., because that’s kid time.”